Sunday, December 19, 2010

Childhood's End -- Arthur C. Clarke ------------------------ 5 Stars

Every so often one stumbles upon a book that is absolutely fantastic you can't help but wonder why you never read it before. Usually, you hear about the book through a small article or website, in a random conversation, or when speaking to a friend or family member. Well, I was recommended Childhood's End through the latter source. My father, who enjoys different books than I (science vs. politics, fiction vs. non) recommended this in a recent conversation. Like most folks who recommend a book, he absolutely 'loved' it and thought it was 'one of the best books he's read'. I was immediately apprehensive. He told me Arthur C. Clarke might be the best science fiction writer ever; I didn't know him from Adam. But, as they say, father (or is it mother?....well, whatever) knows best.

Childhood's End is a perfect novel. I don't even know where to start in describing it. A quick synopsis: quasi-aliens come to Earth and sort of take over but not completely. Life gets better for humans. It moves forward about 50 years, they do some other things then it gets crazier, and then there is a really cool ending.

That's about all I can reveal without giving it away. See, it's in the genre of science fiction, but it's not hardcore science fiction. I hate science fiction, this is good stuff. In fact, the novel is much more about the human civilization and how individuals struggle within a society. It also questions the importance of humans in the grand scheme of the world/universe/galaxy thing. It reminds me more of a 1984 and Brave New World then a science fiction book.

Anyway, back to may raving. The novel is superb. It is quite short, but Clarke does such an unbelievable job with the story that every page, every sentence, every word is critical. I found myself rereading passages and paragraphs again, not because they were confusing or cumbersome (like some writers) but because he said so much with so few words. In fact, that was what I found most surprising and enjoyable about this novel: how much I enjoyed his writing style. Simple, yet deep and so crisp and easy to follow.

The novel also had so many overarching existentialist thoughts and musings. The great part, unlike many authors, Clarke never takes a real view; he just presents both sides and the reader can interpret as he sees fit. Clarke will present the one side, of the smallness and how inconsequential the human race is and then quickly show another side, which values people's work in the arts, literature, music, etc. Really, it was quite well done.

Now, one might wonder how it's possible that this short book could garner a 5 star rating. Does it have any weaknesses one might ask? Well, the one thing that Clarke does not do well, is character development. There is no real depth to the characters, and they are introduced and removed fairly quickly. But, as I said earlier, it's a perfect novel. I believe that is all quite on purpose. This book is NOT about people and individuals, its about society and humanity as a whole. It's written with the focus on the BIG picture, not simple, minuscule human individuals.

All in all, it truly is a great novel and wonderful book. Easily up there with the likes of the other 5 star novels I have reviewed: East of Eden, The Godfather, and Pillars of the Earth. It's a book that says something. It's a book that is incredibly fun to read (I finished it in 3 days). It's really well written. The ending is honest to the novel and unexpected. I don't know what else to say about it, but you should go get it. Like I said originally, every once in a while a book comes along that you don't know why you haven't read it before but after you do you are so happy you did. This is that book!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Nudge – Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein ------ 2.5 STARS

So, it's been exactly one month since my last post and things have changed. I erroneously and sillllyy (that's right, I just added an 'ly"to silly) thought that I would have more time to read with a newborn around. Oi! I know see the error of my ways. He seems to keep us pretty busy as witnessed by it taking a month to read this fairly short book. However, in my defense, part of the tardiness in completing Nudge was it's lack of umph. See, the book really wasn't that good. In fact, it was one of those books I had on my 'must read' list for a while, and I was really quite disappointed.

The book, as the title implies, is about little things that can be done to nudge people to make better decisions. The authors focus specifically on health, wealth and happiness (important stuff), and the idea behind the book is great. It is of the Gladwell and Airely ilk of quasi behavioral economics (kind of psychology + economics) and quasi political scienciey (I like this making words up thing). The big problem though is that is written by two economists. No, I don't like to put down economists just to put them down (they already have so much going against them with their calculators and geeky pocket protectors...jk), but they aren't the most exciting writers. In fact, there were times were I thought I was reading a textbook. That wouldn't be a problem if that was what I was getting into, but I thought this was a book for pleasure and would have a bit more creativity and excitement to it (to wit - the genius of Gladwell).

So, the writing was dry, boring and long at many points, and that was the biggest turnoff. In fact, it was almost painful to finish the book as the best stuff, in my opinion, was at the start. Let's talk about the good stuff.
Well, there were some good stats. Like, when going out to eat with others you eat 35% more than usual with 1 other person, 75% more with groups of 4 or more and 96% more if with more than 7 people. If trying to help people quit smoking the best way to do so is with money. People who pledged a certain amount of money to stop smoking, and would lose it if they did smoke, quit 53% more of the time than average. And, of course the best, by putting a fake fly in the bottom of a urinal, 80% less spillage occurs.

Overall, the book left me with some good summarizing ideas that might be applicable to one's own life. Specifically, when trying to nudge people remember the importance of social factors. People will often make decisions based little on economic viability and more with what others are doing. Another lesson, the default choice is incredibly important. If people are deciding something, whatever is the default is what most will go make sure it's the right choice.

In general, the authors support something called libertarian paternalism which basically means liberty preserving. However, I found most of their suggestions to have a lot of "choice" already made in them. Almost always they support allowing people to choose what they would like in a situation BUT they nearly always have an option that people will automatically choose for people or has something set for them. So, although they do always have an option of free choice they nearly always want policies to be set up to help people as if they don't know what they are doing. Well, I think this is .............. great! People are stupid; those in the know should help them.

So, overall, it's not a bad book. Had I never heard of it and just picked it off the shelf to read it would have been given a higher rating. It is fairly interesting and the authors ideas I agree with and support more than most other books I read. I was just so UP for reading it and it was just written in such a boring way it was tough to give it a great rating.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Rector of Justin -- Louis Auchincloss -------------- 4 Stars

One of the surprising benefits (so far anyway...maybe because I'm not working) of having a newborn is that I have actually been able to read more than I thought. There's a lot of time to read... staying up waiting for him to go to sleep, rocking him, watching him in a swing, waiting during a adds up. Anyway, this is good for me as a book blogger and interested reader. During the past few weeks I was able to finish the enjoyable The Rector of Justin.

As an educator, this book hit close to home as it tells the story, via diary entries, of an incredible Head of School at an extremely prestigious New England boys parochial school during the first half of the 20th century. The novel and author are apparently very famous, unbeknownst to me prior to reading the book, and it is said that it is one of the great 'school' novels ever written. I would have to say I would agree with that sentiment.

A truly rhythmical, though at time slightly challenging prose, the author writes almost poetically and with great clarity throughout the novel. At times, I would find myself rereading sentences to both assure I understood but to also appreciate a master of words. Certainly Auchincloss is a pro the craft of writing.

Besides the wonderful verse, what I enjoyed most about the novel is simply the story. Written from the perspective of six different individuals, each entry directly or indirectly tells about some part of the life of Dr. Prescott, head of Justin Martyr (the school). Through a beautiful weaving together of various entries from different time periods, by the end of the novel the reader enjoys an intimate and slightly paradoxical view of this great man. From some perspectives he represents a caring, genius who cares for all while others show him as an nonsensical monster who is driven by his ego. Nonetheless, as a reader, you can't help but respect him and feel for his incredibly driven belief in the importance of morality, religion and structures.

In the end, I could not help but question my own views regarding the overall purpose of education. Is it simply about imparting content and material? Is it predominantly about creating responsible and moral individuals? Is it more than both of those? Because this book hit so close to him coupled with the fact that it was written so eloquently and included such a great biographical story, I could not help but truly love it. I would have liked to give it 4.5 or 5 stars but it still lacked some of the 'pop' of those other books that garnered that high a grade. Alas, there are entries and chapters that are sluggish and some characters are not fully enough developed for me, but it's tough to complain with a book such as this. Overall, it really was quite good; do check it out.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Company -- Robert Littell -------------------------------- 4 Stars

Well, it's been almost two months since my last blog and I'm a bit
embarrassed for the long delay. In my defense, I have been getting ready for the first child (coming on Monday) and trying to get through 900 page novels. However, the last two months of reading Robert Littell's The Company has turned out to be well worth it.

The book is a pretty classic spy novel spanning over the past half century. As the title states, it is a book the spies in the CIA. I didn't love it, but I liked it. It was cool, moved quickly enough and created full and deep characters. In fact, the charecters that Littell wrote of were perhaps the most interesting part of the novel. See, the the story spans from 1945-1990ish and he tells about the characters through various time periods in history beginning with World War II. What's enjoyable is that every 200 pages or so, the author jumps forward about 10 years and moves the characters along as well. So, by the end, you've been able to follow the arc of 4-5 main character's lives... it's good stuff.

What's also great, is that the characters, though fake, are all taking part in events and activities that actually occurred in history. From the Bay of Pigs Invasion to the Hungarian Revolution to the Afghan Russian War. And, from my limited understanding of history, most of these events were treated with the realism and accuracy of a non-fiction book. He also put in real historical figures (RFK, Reagan, Khrushchev anyone?) which made the novel seem even more real.

The other part of the book I really liked was that the spying parts seemed within the realm of real life as opposed to a bunch of fake stuff you always see in spy movies. Nearly all the spies were either Russian or American and the novel is almost all about the Cold War and it's related skirmishes or events.

If I did have any complaints, it was that the novel does have some slow parts and drags out scenes. The other major knock on the book is that it IS 900 pages. I love a good story as much as the next guy, but if you are going to write for nearly 1,000 page you better have some really, really worthwhile stuff (see: Pillars of the Earth).

Overall, it is definitely worthy reading for any spy or history buffs out there as it is really written and told like a non-fiction book (and one really can't help but wonder how much really was non-fiction). The story is pretty excellent from start to end and Littell had a pretty good knack for switching to a new time period or event right when the reader is starting to get a little tired with the current period. 4 enthusiastic stars.

P.S. I am not sure when I will be able to 'drop' (that's the parlance of our times, you know?) my next blog as the child is coming on Monday. They say taking care of a baby takes some time so we'll have to see how much reading I can actually get done. Either way, I know have a somewhat legit excuse for not blogging more often. Maybe it would be easier to change this to a baby blog?????

Monday, September 6, 2010

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman – Jon Krakauer ------ 3.5 STARS

I am a huge Jon Krakauer fan (although I don't care for spelling his last name). I have enjoyed a number of his books, beginning with the incredible Into Thin Air to Into the Wild (just ok) to the highly underrated Under the Banner of Heaven. For a while now I have been looking forward to reading his newest book: Where Men Win Glory.

Well, I just finished it and it was...okay. Like Krakauer's other books, it was incredibly well written and included no wasted word. It was exceptionally researched and told in a very concise and matter of fact way. The biggest problem though was the story was not as interesting as his other novels. I know, I know, it seems hard to believe: million dollar athlete giving it all up to go fight terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan. Great idea for a story, but the actual way it played out left a lot to be desired.

In his other novels, the greatness with the book was the actual story he decided to tell. Going up Everest when a storm comes in: amazing. Rich kid giving up all possessions to go live in Alaska: fascinating. A murder and it's connection to Mormon fundamentalism: taboo and thrilling. On the surface, the story of Pat Tillman seems as interesting as well; unfortunately, after learning about his life and eventual death, it lacks the excitement and interest of the other stories.

In what was nearly a biography for Tillman's life, this book tell his story from his childhood growing up in northern California to his eventual death by friendly fire in the mountains of Afghanistan and everything in between (you know, like becoming one of the best defensive backs in the NFL and then walking away from million dollar contracts). His life truly was fascinating. A bright, always questioning and challenging himself sort of guy, he certainly wasn't your average NFL athlete or Army soldier. His story about leaving the NFL after 9/11 to do more for his country is both courageous and patriotic and you can't help but really root for him as you learn more about him.

The reason the story isn't great though is because the best parts of it (and really the most intriguing) occur before he leaves for Iraq. His early life and amazing jump to the NFL showed an incredible, hard working side and a classical "you're too small" to make it type of story. Going to Afghanistan, being their for an incredibly short time, never seeing any real combat against the enemy and dying by friendly fire when no one else dies is beyond sad. It's tragic.

The other major part of the novel a reader should be aware of is the massive cover up of how Tillman died. Through some incredible research, the author discovers a large lie that permeated throughout the federal government and into the media after Tillman's death that stated he died fighting the Taliban makes you lament the loss of his life even greater. Perhaps because I am a seasoned veteran and well weathered conspiracy analyst I wasn't surprised by the cover up but Krakauer spends a fair part of the book going after the government and military who knowingly lied to Tillman's family and the public.

Although I lob a number of negative comments about the book, it really is a fairly well told story and great book to read. Like I said, I didn't enjoy it as much as his other books but, to me, a mediocre Krakauer is better than a lot of what's out there. Just be prepared to feel bad. Bad about the lack of story but much more so about a great guy dying far too young.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Falling From Grace -- Terry Pluto --------- 2.5 Stars

It's a bit bizarre to read a book 15 years after it was meant to be read but that's what happened to me after recently finishing Terry Pluto's Falling From Grace. At some point a couple of weeks ago, I was out of books, didn't want to head to the library and needed something to read. I checked my bookshelf assuming I had read all the books and found Falling From Grace. I've had this book for probably 15 years and assumed I read it but realized after the first few pages I had not... thus began a pretty weird experience.

A little background: the book was written in 1995 and was timely, in that most of the ideas, statistics and points made were based on very recent events. This is quite weird to read about 15 years later. Unlike some history books about events (sports, people, countries), this book was not for future digestion; rather, it was composed to be read and discussed in a very small time frame after it was completed. Thus leading to the oddity that was reading the book in 2010.

The basic premise is that the NBA circa 1995 is falling apart and all the wonderful things about it (created by Magic, Larry, MJ, etc.) are going down hill. Pluto, the definition of a curmudgeon I believe, interviews a bunch of 'old school' NBA guys and delves into the litany of problems in the NBA today (remember, 'today' is 1995).

In general, it was actually a fairly interesting book though I don't love his writing style as it's far too casual for me. What was most cool was seeing how his predictions and theories about the future were actually mostly correct. He warns about a league that will be too player centric, scoring focused and less about good fundamental basketball. For the most part, I would argue that Pluto was right on the money for nearly everything he writes. The downfall of the NBA from a 'team sports' perspective is pretty obvious.

In many ways it was kind of an interesting experience reading a book so specific in scope and time so many years later. I don't think it was the most well written book and he drags on very often and in some cases whole chapters are just straight quotes from interviews. Some of his anecdotes and stories about player behavior are pretty interesting and made the book more enjoyable.

I can't say I would recommend this book for most readers, but if you happen to have a supreme interest in the NBA and would like to read a manifesto outlining the major current problems in professional basketball 15 years prior to their occurrence, this book is for you.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Home Game -- Michael Lewis ---------------- 1.5 Stars

As some of you may know, I am pregnant. Well, I guess if you want to get technical about it, my wife is pregnant. I am going to be a father in a few months, and in the continuing effort to learn as much possible about the new addition, I have been educating myself about being a dad/having a child. Most of the books tend to be the very information yet incredibly boring baby books about pregnancy, giving birth, the first year, etc. Nothing I read in full nor want to review. So, I was quite excited when my wife recently gave me Michael Lewis' new book Home Game.

As you can tell from my 1.5 rating, I did not enjoy this book. This means one of three things: either I am going to hate being a father, this book sucks or Lewis is a fairly terrible dad (or perhaps a combination of the second two).

Let me explain. The book is basically this guys diary of clever and interesting (or so he thinks) anecdotes about the birth/early years of his three children. Now, I can't judge since I have never experience fatherhood before, but he makes being a dad sound awful. I mean, really not fun at all. Now, perhaps I'm all doe eyed and excited because my child is not here yet but this guy makes it sound like you are in a perpetual state of no sleep and no enjoyment, constantly worried and always looking to get away. At one point, he felt that the idea of killing a child really isn't that bad (I think he was joking).

Anyway, that's the major reason I didn't like this book. Second, the stories really aren't that entertaining or funny. In fact, his humor style I find most similar to Dave Barry (that's not a good thing). I love Lewis' other books -- Moneyball and Liar's Poker. He really should stick with stuff like that.

I guess the book wasn't all awful. It was short and easy to read. Occasionally it would be humorous, though nearly always it was when one of his young girls curses. That's about it.

In the end, it mostly left me confused. I was assuming there would be some great message or idea at the end, but I think it was literally his last diary entry. After listening to him rip on the idea of being a father for 200 pages, I was expecting a bit more of a happy ending. So, my confusion exists not knowing if this is what real fatherhood is and everyone else is sort of lying or if this guy is just painting a picture of being a fairly pathetic and unhappy father. I guess in time I will find out. Until then, I will err on the optimistic side and assume being father will be awesome and this guy should stick to writing about baseball and Wall Street.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Power of One – Bryce Courtenay ------ 4 STARS

I usually like to start each blog with some interesting anecdote, piece of information or exciting idea that captures the readers attention... I have nothing like that for this post. Bryce Courtenay's The Power of One was a very, very well written book with a great plot, amazing characters and a very nice overall moral and story. Unfortunately, there was nothing mind blowing or unbelievably exciting to report so I'll keep this review fairly short.

The book is a relatively recently written novel and has to be a standout in the last 20 years of literature. The novel, a story in three parts about a young boy's life in Africa and his eventual growing into a young man, is one of the two greatest novels of South African literature (the other, the older and also enjoyable Cry, The Beloved Country). The story told from a first person perspective of a young child (5-6ish), an older high school age student, and finally from a young man, paints a beautiful picture of this character's life.

The novel also is quite good for it's historical timeliness. The backdrop for most of the novel is World War II and the inevitable nationalistic views of people from Germany and England is constantly fueling fire to the drama. Add in a racist culture and a large number of local Africans you have an interesting perspective for the story. Perhaps the best part of the whole novel is the author's ability to clearly and beautifully display and layer characters and tell a truly fascinating story about the star Peekay. Besides finishing the book and loving Peekay as a person, you can't help but feel positively about the many well polished and unique individuals that affected Peekay's historic life. Very, very well done.

Unfortunately, the book does have some drawbacks. The biggest being that it starts off quite slow and there are many occasions where one becomes bored easily and the lack of action is distinct. I found myself in more than a few chapters hoping that it would end quickly so another, perhaps more exciting chapter could begin. It's also a pretty long book and it takes a while to get through when reading the non-boxing parts. (Sidenote I should have mentioned above, the boxing scenes/writing are the most enjoyable and quick to go by reading in the book...absolutely great).

Overall, The Power of One is a fairly enjoyable novel that is exhilarating to read when it's moving well and a bit slow to get through at certain times. I wouldn't call it historical fiction, but the backdrop of South Africa during the 1940s and 1950s adds some good depth to the novel. In general, I would suggest any reader pick this up that likes a nicely told, well crafted STORY. I capitalize story as the book's major motivation is to simply tell you the story of Peekay's life and all the wonderful people he meets and great events that happen to him. You can't help but caring for him by the end and you know the author succeeded when that's the end result.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Book of Basketball – Bill Simmons --------- 4.5 Stars

Well, only four days after LeBron James’ soon to be infamous Decision, I find it fitting that I review the aptly named The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons. Before we get into the book, however, I must provide a quick opinion about the Decision for posterity and for future readers. I would use a footnote here (you will understand why later in the blog) but don’t think it’s possible with this blog so I will instead use my go to parenthesis:

(For those of you who are unfamiliar, the summer of 2010 will go down as the biggest free agency openings in the history of basketball. The biggest free agent (and arguably best player in the league) LeBron James waited until a couple weeks into free agency to announce his decision. Unlike another talented player Kevin Durant, who announced his decision via Twitter, James held a prime-time, hour long press conference to announce he was leaving his hometown team and going to play with two other All-stars in Miami. Without getting too preachy, the Decision was the most narcissistic, self-indulgent, ‘I am bigger than everyone else’ move in recent memory. James, a so called ‘competitor’, will be 2nd banana in Miami to Dwayne Wade and join a great team… would MJ have ever joined up with Magic to play… not unless it was against Germany. The whole thing is doomed. If they win a championship or many rings, James along with everyone else, will wonder if he could have done it himself and that ‘they were supposed to win anyway’. If they lose, which is what I must believe most of America is rooting for, than it’s a colossal waste. Either way, it will be difficult for me to root for James again).

Wow, sorry about that; needed to get that out. I recently finished a serene week on the beaches of North Carolina and finished this colossal, but highly enjoyable book all about the NBA (sorry college and ladies). The book was incredibly well done and remarkably enjoyable. Simmons, a popular writer on, is truly an aficionado about the NBA and demonstrates a remarkable sense of humor and ease of prose throughout the book. One of the absolute best parts of the book are Simmons’ footnotes. Malcolm Galdwell, who wrote the foreword (famous for Blink, Outliers, and What the Dog Saw), writes that “Simmons is the master of the footnote”; so very true, Simmons must use hundreds of footnotes throughout the books 700 pages, but each is either very funny or a useful piece of information.

The book starts with an explanation of the origin for his passion for the game, goes into the Secret of basketball, the Wilt vs. Russell debate, a bit of history, some fun “what-ifs”, an explanation of his new “Pyramid” system to be used rather than the Hall of Fame, the list of HIS best 96 players ever, best teams ever, and the best team ever put together from the best player’s ever. He packs an unbelievable amount of NBA stuff into the book, and it was great reading all through the way. The majority of the book are his summaries of the various 96 top players careers, and I thoroughly enjoyed learning about guys who I never saw play but have been mentioned throughout history often (Big O, Petit, Rick Barry, Frazier, etc.).

What I also loved about the book was Simmons’ complete understanding of the importance of playing basketball as a team game rather than an individual sport (you can probably guess how he treats Wilt in the Russell vs. Chamberlain chapter). On p.49 he includes some wonderful quotes form Bill Bradley and Bill Russell that provide fuel to any off-season basketball coach. Adding to this, perhaps my favorite quotation in the book comes from the epilogue and Simmons’ interview with the very well respected Bill Walton who states that the key to basketball is how you answer this question: “Can you make the choice that happiness can come from someone else’s success? BEAUTIFUL. What a great way to understand the sport.

The only drawback of the book, and what kept it from the coveted 5/5 rating, was that, although incredibly entertaining and a joy to read, it didn’t have the necessary depth and long lasting power of some of the other books I have reviewed (Godfather, Pillars, etc.). At the end of the day (or review), most of the book is about Simmons’ own views about fictional ideas and things he has created. The “Pantheon” of players, the blowing up of the Hall of Fame, and the highly anticipated basketball game against the aliens are funny to read about and great intellectual exercises but don’t have a lot of realism behind them. Likewise, I believe he has already changed his Top 96 Pyramid list a few times and the book is still in hardcover so I don’t think it will really last the test of time (or test of a year).

Nonetheless, I truly enjoyed reading every word of his book, and if you have any interest in basketball, I would highly recommend it to you. Being a person who loves the NBA and its history this book was a real swish (Holy God! Worst basketball joke ever).

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Stoner -- John Williams -------- 3 Stars

Before beginning my review of the novel Stoner by John Williams, for the sake of full disclosure, I must make you aware of how this very unknown book got on my radar. I was skimming through a Time magazine and came to an interview with Tom Hanks. I like Tom Hanks and though it might be interesting to check out what he was saying. It was mostly about his producing of The Pacific miniseries on HBO but they asked him one of his favorite novels and lo and behold he mentioned Stoner. He said he loved it and a few other nice things and that was enough for me… I mean, he’s Tom Hanks. We’ll there’s a reason that Tom Hanks is a great actor and not a great writer or literary critic.

Now, don’t get me be wrong, I enjoyed the book and thought it was good, almost very good; but to say it’s one of your favorite book ever written is a bit much. Since very few of you have probably read this book a little background: it was written in 1965 and follows the life of a man named John Stoner from his late teens through his death during the first half of the 20th century. The setting is Missouri and the book revolves around his academic life, as he served as a college Literature professor for all of his life. That’s about all you need to know about the plot.

There are many positive aspects of this novel. I love the theme and subject of the book and Stoner’s passion and love for academics. Stoner is a true romantic in many ways, though he says and does otherwise, and Williams shows this quixotic view of the main character in various ways. I loved the depth of the character developed. I mean, the author does an amazing job sculpting and layering Stoner that, by the end, you can’t help but feel you know him and care about him. The last real positive aspect of the text was the writing style. You could definitely say that Williams is a writer who never has a wasted word yet at the same times makes you aware of every necessary detail but nothing extraneous.

This is also one of the negatives of this novel. Having a shortened, concise writing style does not bother me (though it’s great to read florid, fanciful writing), but it seemed too often the author did not provide the necessary depth for other characters and settings. Perhaps this was purposeful. Dave Masters, for example, is a character introduced, described briefly and then removed from the novel in a matter of pages. He then remains one of the more referenced characters and a “friend” of Stoner to the end. I wish I would have learned of him more fully. This shortened and less than developed emphasis on other characters was an issue throughout the novel. The overall plot and rising action in the novel is a bit limited and dry as well. Nothing exceptionally exciting ever happens and Stoner’s life is grounded in reality (like every day boring life reality) for much of the novel.

Overall, the book was a bit of a disappointment. I was really expecting a beautifully crafted, fluidly written, exciting drama and it was lacking in a few of those areas. I also believe it didn’t help that I had my expectations raised to a high level (thanks a lot Tom Hanks – stick to making more Da Vinci Codes). Nonetheless, the novel does provide a beautiful and well defined character study of a man. And, in the end, who Stoner is and what he stands for is what the reader comes to enjoy about the novel. Stoner’s love for school, academics, learning, and true love is the leading themes of the book, and you can’t read the novel without appreciating those ideals.

It’s worth a read if you have some time this summer. It’s not long and you may appreciate it more than I do. Perhaps if you do, you or Tom Hanks can drop me a line and let me know what I missed.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? -- Michael Sandel ------------ 3 Stars

Usually when I finish a book, I look forward to putting my thoughts down and writing a review. For some reason, I have sort of dreaded finishing and writing about Michael Sandel's Justice. This is a very new book and since most readers have not read it, I will give a quick synopsis.

Sandel teaches a class at Harvard with the same name that discusses and evaluates how laws and rules are created. His book is similar. It traces some early political theories, relates them and then looks at their affect on a few modern political issues.

Overall, the book was disappointing. I was expecting this very exciting debate on major political issues but rather got a book that had 95% political philosophy and theory and 5% application. To enjoy this book you really, really have to like philosophy. I enjoy philosophy in small amounts, and I do believe the author did a great job explaining fairly difficulty political thoughts in a way even a laymen can understand. He starts with the idea of utilitarianism which basically argues for providing the greatest good to the biggest number of people. Then, he changes to libertarianism which allows for people to have as much freedom and liberty as possible; i.e. NO government influence. He then moves on to Immanuel Kant and John Rawls. The former basically supports the idea of 'moral reasoning' and allowing people to make decisions based on true, practical reason. Rawls believes people should make decisions assuming a 'veil of ignorance' which basically means to ask yourself prior to making your decision, would you make the same decision if you were not who you were (i.e. you could be poor and not rich; would you still want no redistribution of tax income?) He then goes on to Aristotle who basically argues that there is a 'correct' moral stand that people need to figure out and take.

These chapters were actually pretty good. Although a bit 'heady' (he likes to do the classic philosopher thing of 'so here is the thought but if you change this thing than it changes, but if you change this then the thought is this. That makes sense, well let's now actually look at it this way'.) his explanation of the philosophies was actually very illuminating and I enjoyed most of it. He then spent nearly a quarter of the book talking about what we owe each in a society. I really disliked this. I found it boring, with little relation to all the philosophies I spent so much time trying to understand from earlier and not applicable to anything modern.

He finished with an okay chapter about some modern issues like abortion, stem cell research and homosexuality. He made me rethink about some of those issues as he argued (correctly I would say, though you need to read the book to find out why) that if you are pro-choice or support same sex marriage you can't do it on the argument of "let people choose what they want"/liberty view.

I am not sure what else to offer to inspire or excite the reader about checking this book out. If, as I had hoped, this had been a book that clearly and eloquently explained some of the major viewpoints and political arguments of our time, that would have been awesome. Early in the book Sandel raises some simple questions like "is it okay for Michael Jordan to make millions each year and a teacher a few thousand" or "is it okay for people to gouge others on the price of gas ($11/gallon) in New Orleans after Katrina". Of course, he never provides any answers but rather (I guess) assumes you will come to your conclusion after understanding and deciding upon your own philosophy that resonates with yourself.

I do like the ending of the book. Unlike many political books, this author actually tells you his own view on things. I won't ruin it but I will give you a hint, the guy is obsessed about and wrote a whole book about philosophy, justice and morals -- he probably sort of supports that stuff.

Do check this out if any of this sounds interesting to you. It's not a long book but is a slow read because you really have to think (damn!) about what you are reading as you go through.

Stay tuned for my next review. I am pumped for reading John Williams' Stoner. Although not a hugely well known book, it's supposed to be excellent. Check it out if you like even before my review (sorry if it sucks).

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Superfreakonomics – Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner ------ 4 STARS

Well after taking nearly two months to finish one book (The Stand), I finished the next book in only two weeks (SuperFrekonomics). What a nice, quick, interesting read it was. In the same ilk as the Malcolm Gladwell books, and a follow up to their hugely successful Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner follow the same pattern as their earlier books: look at a bunch of data, make some pretty amazing conclusions and throw them all together and try to find a 'theme'.

Since my last sentence pretty much summarized the whole book, I'd like to get into some of their findings. They were new, cool, out there, sometimes applicable and always interesting. Here were some of their views:
  • It's safer to walk drunk than drive drunk
  • Bringing T.V. to India helped a lot of women
  • Public schools today are worst than 50 years ago mostly because smart women found other jobs (no offense out there --- just a gigantic generalization)
  • You obtain mastery in anything through deliberate practice and doing what you love
  • In the 70's violent crime was twice as high in cities who got TV earlier than those that didn't
  • With many injuries (and kids over 2), seat belts work better than car seats
Now, to perhaps the most interesting set of conclusions (all about global warming):
  • cud-chewing animals (cows and sheep) produce 25 times more carbon dioxide than cars
  • buying local produced food increases increases carbon dioxide
  • carbon dioxide levels were much higher 80 million years ago and have gone down since
  • carbon dioxide levels have risen after temperature increases
  • there is an easy fix to global warming but people don't want to try it
With all these various conclusions, perhaps the biggest lesson of this book and their first, is that PEOPLE RESPOND TO INCENTIVES -- this is perhaps the biggest answer for all things economic (and not).

Overall, this was a great book to read if you like this sort of thing... unlike Gladwell's book it is more data driven and a bit more random in the subjects. You might also like it if you would like more depth to the 'conclusions' I provided above. Each story and background about those views is included and well written. My only complaint of the book is that most of their subjects have little to nothing to do with each other. Although they do a fairly good job of relating most issues in the same chapter to some common theme and conclusion, the book as as whole is fairly random. Nonetheless, I recommend this book to most readers. If you like the original Freakonomics, do check this one out.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Stand: Expanded Edition: For the First Time Complete and Uncut -- Stephen King -- 3 Stars

Well it's been nearly two months since my last review and blog. I wish I had a cool excuse for the long absence like traveling around the world or visiting the Moon but rather it's sort of typical: work, house stuff and other things. Perhaps the biggest reason for the two months off was that I was trying to get through the monstrous The Stand: Expanded Edition: For the First Time Complete and Uncut by Stephen King. Please note that whole title I included (which will hereafter be called just "The Stand") as it's important in my reasoning for my review score.

If you have never heard of The Stand, you probably want to talk with so more people about books. Most likely you have heard of Stephen King; well, this is one of his earliest books but for most fans of King, and other literary peeps, it's considered his best book. It doesn't have nearly as much of the typical gore and scariness of a King book and has a bit more positive themes than his other novels as well.

The novel is basically a story about a post-apocalyptic America where most people were wiped out by a super flue. The story then turns to the creation of two groups of people who are left: a 'good' group and a 'bad' group. I use quotation marks, not because the reader really can't tell which group is good or bad (King makes it quite obvious), rather, because they are never really called 'good' or 'bad'. The remainder of the novel is basically about the two groups creating their own societies and what happens to the groups.

I gave the book 3 out of 5 stars. That's probably a very low rating relative to nearly every person I spoke to about this book but let me explain why. First, and most importantly, my ratings are based on how much I enjoy the book and it keeps me interested. I'm not an English teacher, and I don't appreciate literary devices. This was certainly an 'epic' story, which I appreciate, but the use of allegory, metaphysics, a great subplot and other elements don't necessarily wow me (though The Stand certainly has all of those). At the end of the day, I judge books on how much I enjoyed reading them. Unfortunaetly, this was the biggest struggle with this novel. There were days and chapters where I had to force myself to PUT THE NOVEL DOWN. During those times the action was superb and writing so nicely done that the novel just flew by. However, more often than not, I found myself reluctant to even PICK UP THE BOOK. So much of the novel is detailed description of characters and scenes that I did not appreciate. Which leads to....

Reason #2 I did not like the book as much as others: It's soooooooooooooooooooooooo long. Now, please don't consider me a prude of long books. I have read some very long stories in my day like Pillars of the Earth and East of Eden. In fact, more often than not, the longer the book (in my experience) the better overall novel. However, as I was reading this book, I constantly was thinking to myself "man, this would be a great book if only it was edited down". Then I realized something... it was edited down. I am reading the "Expanded Edition". The original novel from 1978 was hundreds of pages less. Now I understand why they have the Expanded Edition; fans from around the world wanted to learn and get more depth on Kings characters and all of those extra pages from the 1990 Expanded Edition King had laying around his house. So perhaps other people really appreciated this extra writing but not me. To me this was very similar to watching the deleted scenes from a movie on the DVD. Have you ever done that? I have found that nearly every time I watch the deleted scenes they SUCK! There is a reason they were deleted, because they were not good enough to make the actual movie. That is how I felt with many (especially early in the novel) pages of this book.

Third reason for dislike -- nothing really ever happens. It is one of the most slow moving plots ever. This whole set of reasoning goes back to my first point about ratings: it's based on entertainment value. Although the stories of different people are very interesting and characters are wonderfully presented with diverse background and personalities; it's not until the last couple hundred of pages (out of 1150 pages) that there is any real action... before that it's just buildup.

Nonetheless, the novel is still great in some areas. The overall struggle between good and evil was excellent; specifically, seeing characters change and develop over time in different ways was excellent. I also loved the character of Glen Batemen as he constantly challenged the idea of how a society should be created and run. His often pessimistic views of organized structure and government added some great depth to the story.

In the end, I would recommend this novel to any King fan (though if you are a Stephen King fan, you probably have already read it). For others, it is worth a read and rest assured, that most people LOVE this book. As for me, I guess I just ask for too much sometimes when reading a novel that I don't want to have to force myself to read it.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town -- Nick Reding -------- 3.5 Stars

Recently I finished the eye-opening Methland by a young author named Nick Redding. This book was the most recent pick in the occasionally (but far more often lately) visited book club that I belong to. As you can probably gather from the title, it's a book about crystal meth and it's affect on America. What's pretty cool about this book was the way Redding tells the story of meth through the story of people.

Often books that deal with more 'academic' topics are told through dry, nondescript texts. One of the real joys of reading Methland was Redding's ability to really tell a story about people's lives which then provides the fodder to allow him to make whatever insights necessary to explain the problem of Meth in America. His story is about a dozen individuals living in Iowa and how their lives are affected daily by the prevalence of crystal meth in society. Their stories are rich, characters are well textured and the themes multi-tiered. Trust me that it's easy as a reader to relate/feel for the characters which makes it easy to follow and care for their stories.

Perhaps what is most interesting about the book, which his well described characters help make the reader readily understand, is how incredibly significant and unfortunate the current meth problem is in America. In a lucky stroke of coincidence for me, less than two months before starting this book, I began (and just finished) watching the AMC drama Breaking Bad. For those not in the know, Breaking Bad, is an incredibly well acted drama about a chemistry teachers exploits into the crystal meth production and selling world (simply awesome show -- go check it out or at least watch the new episodes starting in March). Although fictional, like Methland, the stories of Meth and it's affect on an average user is pretty overwhelming.

Redding often assesses and offers his opinion about the meth epidemic after telling one story or another. One of his major themes is the relationship between meth's positive usage consequence -- energy and strength to work hours and hours at one time and one underlying American 'value' we hold -- the ability to be disciplined and hard worker. Ironic that a drug that so many Americans find 'evil' allows people to fulfill the very societal values we find most pivotal.

This 'positive' consequence of meth (working for hours) also happens to be biggest explanation for WHO ends up using the drug. Often, the meth user will be someone from a poor or meager household who will do anything to try to get ahead. Redding writes about this relationship convincingly and often and concludes that much of the meth usage is on the rise because the changes in our economy and especially the effect of that change in rural areas.

Another fascinating theme was Redding's description of simply how easy it is to produce the drug, both on a small and large scale level. He repeatedly shows people who can literally make the drug while riding a bike all the way up to the high level dealers making some of the purest type of meth possible. What's bizarre about meth, however, is that all of the ingredients can be purchased legally. This, perhaps more than any other precondition, is the biggest reason for meth's popularity and exponential growth of usage in America in the past decade.

Redding delivers a number of other noteworthy points and even includes some well received (by me) suggestions about solutions to this bewildering problem. You can read the book to find out the specifics, but I'll give you a hint that the reasons for the problem involve corporate greed and the continued need to keep political power (i.e. big business/government).

Overall, I would strongly recommend this book for anyone who either has an interest in the meth epidemic and it's affect on average Americans or people who want to get a real feel for how meth changes and ruins lives. Most of the stories in this book are not uplifting and more than once you can't help but feel that it's an unsolvable problem. Nonetheless, to learn about how meth came to it's current prominence, while at the same time, looking for ways to correct this problem and save lives captivate the reader's experience.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Dan Brown -- The Lost Symbol -------- 4.5 Stars


As the third foot of snow in five days finishes falling, I am taking some time to review the highly anticipated The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown. Although I did not expect to read this in the near future (and thus it was not listed in the "Book I am Reading Right Now" section of the blog), I suddenly found time to get through this 500 page novel while sitting at home for the last week. For those people away from the D.C. area you probably are not aware of the problems here, but I have left my house once in the last six days, school has been closed seven of eight days in the past two weeks, and I have shoveled an average of 1 hour and 30 minutes four days this week. Nonetheless, sitting at home has given me plenty of time to get through this book. In fact, I needed only three days to finish this wonderfully written and suspenseful page turner.

I have talked with more than a few people about this book before reading it and I have received mixed reviews. Though, for the most part, the opinion is the same -- it was "exactly the same as the Da Vinici Code" and "substitute Italy for D.C. and you got the same book". Well, I'd have to agree with those people but also say -- who cares? I have no qualms with this book being incredibly similar to the DaVinici Code; in fact, I can not fault the author for following a formula that works exceptionally well. Perhaps some of the 'originality' is gone but it's still very, very entertaining and a great story. To me, there is nothing wrong with a great sequel.

The book is basically another story of Robert Langdon, master symbologist, having to follow seemingly unrelated clues to save someone special to him. What I particularly enjoyed with this novel was the American historical references (Masons anyone?) and the entire tale being told in and around the Washington, D.C. area. The Capitol, Library of Congress, and Washington Monument were essential setting pieces and played important parts in the overall plot.

Brown follows the same old script from his other novels -- crazy secrets, bizarre symbols, odd quandaries that can only be answered with great historical knowledge, and cliffhanger chapter endings a plenty. In fact, it would be a shame not to mention how underrated the cliffhanger chapter ending is. It's commonplace in many novels, but after personally reading so many non-fiction pieces latley (which often ends chapters with with a boring 'duh'), it's nice to finish a chapter and have the feeling that you can't put the novel down as you want SO MUCH to find out what happens next. In many ways, that is the best feature of this book. Dan Brown does such a superb and phenomenal job maintaining reader interest that it really is easy to finish this book in a mere matter of days. I've heard of people finishing the book in only two sittings. It's such an easy and enjoyable read and the flow of the novel is so reader friendly.

In the end, the novel receives such a high rating because of it's off the chart entertainment value. It may not be filled with symbolism, great character development, and a memorable story but it's a book you can't put down and can't help but get into and wonder more about the possibility of it's truthfulness. Like the Da Vinci Code, Brown claims that much of the book is is based on fact and reality and one wonders about the realness of many of the items in the novel. Even the end of the novel, which I was sure would not live up to the hype that was being raised exponentially as the book went one, was about a good and ending as could be anticipated.

Well enough rambling on -- go read this book if you have a chance. It won't take long and you'll have difficulty putting it down. You may finish it and claim it was "just like the Da Vinici Code" and old hat, but I promise you, you will be entertained.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

What the Dog Saw -- Malcolm Gladwell -- 3 Stars

I am a huge Malcolm Gladwell fan. I loved all of his books and gave a great review for Outliers. I've talked to a lot of other people who don't like him so much and think he really is stretching to relate the stories he tells as evidence to make sense of his theories. Well this might be the first time reading anything of his that I agree with those people.

What the Dog Saw is a collection of short stories
Gladwell wrote for The New Yorker. He organizes them into three categories, though I really struggle to understand how many of the stories have anything to do with the theme for that group. The stories are typical Gladwell, taking things that seem obvious or established as "fact" and making the reader rethink set conclusions. There were some great essays like: why there are many brands of mustard and few ketchups, how to easily solve homelessness, why some people choke and others panic, and how to correctly hire. There are, as well, a few really bad essays. I especially disliked the essay about Hair Dye (L'oreal vs. Clairol -- seriously?).

The biggest problem with the book and why it did not get a more
Gladwellesque rating is that it lacked so much of the 'pop' and firepower of his other books. Usually when reading his stories used as examples to prove some idea (The Beatles and Bill Gates in Outliers immediately comes to mine), the stories are so clear, well-thoughtout and ultimately perfect in supporting his thesis. I kept expecting these stories to do the same but it never happened. I would continually finish one of his essays (which, I remind you, have nothing to do with one another) and think to myself "That was really interesting but I am not sure his point". Some essays were better than others and almost all were interesting, but many really struggled to have any giant "oh wow, I never thought of it that way" moment like his other books do.

Overall, I still really enjoyed the book and was captivated by nearly all of his essays. Even if they often did not deliver on an "aha" moment, there all written nicely and each topic and story is interesting to read. I would not suggest going out and buying this book (I was lucky enough to have someone let me borrow...I never buy books but that may be a topic for a future blog). Instead, I would either borrow from the library, or, just read them all for FREE on this New Yorker link. If nothing else, do check out a few of his essays;
Gladwell is one of the few writers out there that can you make you truly rethink the most simple and routine parts of life.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

My Life in France – Julia Child and Alex Prud'homme----- 3 STARS

I recently had the pleasure of watching the very cute movie Julie and Julia. It's a very nice little movie and is the story about Julie (a writer/blogger) who redoes many of Julia Child's most famous recipes. She kind of bores me in the movie, but the scenes with Julia Child (played by the timeless Meryl Streep) were excellent. In fact, I was so intrigued and taken by the whole idea of Julia Child that I knew I wanted to read something by her.

My Life in France is Julia Child's autobiography about her most formative years learning cooking in France from 1950 to the mid 1960s. If you don't know who Julia Child is, she is the person who basically made French cooking in America popular and also fashionable. Additionally, she was the one who started the idea of cooking TV shows. Although we all take the Food Network and others for granted, Julia Child was the first one to have a real show (The French Chef). Her shows were very popular and started in the mid-1960s and ran for 40 years.

As for the book, it is very nice and average but nothing astonishing. It was one of the few instances of reading where I got exactly what I expected. A story about her leaving her OSS job (yes, she was a spy...sort of) to learning the art of fine French cooking in France for a decade. The story illustrates her early learning with great French chefs, to eventually writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking (which made her famous), to a few other cookbooks through the late 1970s.

The book has got a nice tone to it but the organization is a but jumpy and seemingly random events and activities are mentioned with no real connection. One wonders how much she happened to just remember when writing the book that she felt obligated to include. She includes a great deal about meals created, food studied (she is the self-proclaimed expert on mayonnaise) and recipes detailed. Reading the book it would have been nice to have a working knowledge of French as most recipes she includes are in the native French. Although this does add authenticity, it also provides the reader with no clue what was made or eaten on certain nights (some you learn though; canard is duck, for instance).

In general, it's a very nice book about Julia's life, easy to read, and includes a number of great photographs by her husband Paul. I would highly recommend it to any fans or people specifically interested in Julia Child. It is still worth reading if you have any interest in French life or French food or if you a just a gourmand like me.