I've read and re-read this many times; this is one of my favorite books of all time. It's enormously entertaining but also one o...moreA gem of a biography.
I've read and re-read this many times; this is one of my favorite books of all time. It's enormously entertaining but also one of the most awesome glimpses of what it is that makes us human that one could hope to get. Many of Feynman's insights inform my worldview to this day--this is a must read for any scientist, whether they study basic science, clinical medicine, social science, or are informal observers of the world, natural and man-made. (less)
**spoiler alert** In a way, the portrait we are given of the birth of Biafra in this book is as bee-yoo-ti-ful as the too-too-good-to-be true Olanna....more**spoiler alert** In a way, the portrait we are given of the birth of Biafra in this book is as bee-yoo-ti-ful as the too-too-good-to-be true Olanna. They are both tragic heroines, but it's hard to believe in either one of them.
If the Biafra we are shown in this book more closely resembled Olanna's more interesting sister--flawed and unbeautiful, in many ways unknowable, but clever, driven, and cloaked in a quirky, cutting humor--the book might have been a pleasure to read. Rather, I found myself tempted to flip ahead a few pages each time the stiflingly sweet Olanna or her cardboard parents were trotted out, or to rip the pages out altogether each time Ugwu's worldview is presented, unchanging to the last. (Really? *He* somehow ended up with enough insight to tell the story of Biafra?)
The opening chapters are beautiful and evocative, promising textured characters and nuanced themes. However, the author seemed to lose interest in all that is hinted at in the opening chapters; even the savory-as-a-cashew little Ugwu from in the opening chapter is rancid by the middle of the book, his childish perspective from the opening chapter embarrassingly outgrown but not discarded, riding up around the knees of his teenaged self, awkward and ill-fitting. Indeed, *all* the characters remain esentially static, unidimensional, trapped in the bubble in which they were created in the opening chapters. They remain inwardly unchanged by war, famine, violence, betrayal, and suffering--all of which are vividly depicted, but which effect only cartoonish changes in the characters whose lives they savage. Olanna develops fainting spells, Odenigbo drinks cheap liquor and has an affair, Ugwu is drafted and commits that rape he's been fantasizing about since the opening chapters. (I suppose his epiphany is that it is rape to have sex with an unwilling partner.)
Ultimately the reader cannot believe in the uncreasingly unsympathetic characters, or, sadly, Biafra, at all. The only character in whose fate I felt invested, Kainene the ugly sister, is, of course, killed in the war.(less)
**spoiler alert** I was surprised to find that this book is not a discussion of our innate ability to intuit the truth of things given only small amou...more**spoiler alert** I was surprised to find that this book is not a discussion of our innate ability to intuit the truth of things given only small amounts of information: to come an accurate judgement of something in a "blink." A few comments from friends led me think that this was the thesis of this book. Not so.
Rather, all of the studies Gladwell describes and almost all of the various cases he cites and "experts" he interviews prove the opposite: our raw intuition is usually wrong. Those who are able to make accurate snap judgements of others usually can do so as a result of long, painstaking research into which factors will predict a certain outcome, followed by rigorous training to recognize those factors. In any case, not to come to erroneous conclusions about other people requires, at a minimum, conscious self scrutiny (for example, he describes one car salesman who avoids charging black customers more than white customers, unlike most car salesmen [and who knew? but a large number of studies show that they do] only by consciously taking care not to do so), and, more optimally, by blinding ourselves entirely to the appearance of the person we are judging.
In some cases, it's impossible for even the experts to judge. The only way doctors in an ER know who is at highest risk of having a heart attack, it turns out, is for them to follow a printed algorithm which was designed based on a mathematical analysis of the factors which put patients at highest risk. Even the most experienced, senior doctor's sense of a patient's condition is a terrible guide to who is the sickest, in this case. A piece of paper taped to the wall does a better job.
I was eager to read this book because I'm interested in our tendency to overestimate our ability to make judgments of others, and there is a partial description of the some of the types of error we tend to make when we're sizing one another up. (Another fascinating book which touches on this topic--but which is unfortunately more deeply flawed in some ways than this one--is The Spirit in the Gene.)
There are a few large-ish problems Gladwell's arguments, however, and in some cases the interesting research or cases he cites actually undermine his point. Rather than acknowledge this, the author does a little bit of hand waving at times. (The doctors, for example, cannot make good judgements because they have "too much information.") This undermined my enjoyment of an otherwise engaging book. But it's a very quick read, and you're likely to be amazed at some of the very surprising insights that some ingenious researchers have recently gained into the way our brains work, and the way we think.
I'm putting it on my list to reread. I'd like to take a look at some of his primary sources, especially 1. the work of the psychologists who do the "thin slicing" of interactions between married couples, and 2. the study which revealed that being reminded that one is black at the beginning of an examination tends to have profound, adverse effects on the outcome of the examination. (less)
This book aspires to more than it achieves, but it is a wonderful and, at times, amazing first novel nonetheless.
Graceland is set mostly in the early...moreThis book aspires to more than it achieves, but it is a wonderful and, at times, amazing first novel nonetheless.
Graceland is set mostly in the early 1980's in the Lagos slum, Makota, and the protagonist is a boy for whom the grandest ambition imaginable is to become an Elvis impersonator. It's pathetic, and that is just what so charmed me about this novel. The author creates incredible depth of feeling and meaning through symbolism and imagery throughout the book, and the central symbol is the tragicomic dilemma of the protagonist, a gifted, largely self-educated boy with a drive to excel in his calling, who, through a combination of circumstance, naivete, and willful self-delusion, settles upon a career so ludicrous and impossible (and so pleasingly telling--I love this kind of writing, which often means so much more than it overtly says) that even while you laugh out loud from time to time, the character is so engaging, and the book so filled with empathy and love, that you more often ache for him and his country, and from time to time are simply dazzled by the beauty of his doomed efforts.
I have never read a better book about Nigeria.
Makota is a terrible place, in which, as you expect, a multitude of horrifying events unfold, but what sets this book apart from others which explore Nigeria's brutal recent history is the honest examination of each excruciating and lovely detail of the protagonist's life. There is a lyrical turning over, and over, and unfolding of each event, and the place each character holds in the story is revealed anew when seen again and again, now from this angle and now from that. And while much of what we see and experience through the narrative is brutal or painful and simply ugly, just as often you take in your breath in wonder, that such a story could be rendered so beautifully.
Abani is a gifted writer. The final chapters, though, did not maintain the breathtaking beauty and sadness of the first half of the book, and the characters, so engaging and full at first, flattened out a bit. I also found that the sudden introduction of the supernatural in the final chapter lifted me out of the story altogether, and diluted the power of the narrative.
Still it's a beautiful book in many ways, and stunning in its ambition. (less)
Like Obama's own joke about having been named "Barak" (meaning 'blessed') by his father, and having been named "Hussein" by someone who obviously thou...moreLike Obama's own joke about having been named "Barak" (meaning 'blessed') by his father, and having been named "Hussein" by someone who obviously thought he would never run for president, I have to think that this book was written by someone who may not (on some level) have known that about himself, yet, either.
There are a number of fascinating themes in this book: about the complicated roles of race and class in America's social heirarchy, about tribalism in Africa and how astonishingly similar it is to the kinds of group identities present in American sociey; about the compromises to be made in the achievement of power and wealth, which, ironically, seem to prerequisits to remaking society to more closely reflect one's ideals. There is also a refreshing portrayal of the role of simple, sustained hard work, discipline, and self-sacrifice in every kind of achievement, from uncomplicated, concrete things like physical comfort and wealth, to satisfaction with life, well being, happiness, and love.
But the main theme, Obama's quest to understand the father he never knew, and thereby to better understand himself, is riveting in all the unexpected places it takes him, and us. Now that I have read this book, I am more astonished than ever that this odyssey led him to the presidency of the United States, even though the ideals bequeathed him by his absent father set his feet upon that path.
In a way, this book is really all about Obama's mother. Through her, Obama made his way through his childhood judging himself against an inhuman standard: not against the obviously flawed, though deeply loved and loving family who raised him, but rather against the idealized image of his father that his mother created for him: a man both hard-headed and idealistic, brilliant and tirelessly diligent, someone who believed not just in the equality of man as an abstract idea, but who also believed that such equality was not just attainable in his lifetime, but inevitable. A man who made such a dream seem not just possible, but already upon us.
Compared to the idealized image Obama had of his father, the men who were present in life must necessarily have seemed hopelessly flawed: Gramps and his stepfather in Indonesia, Lolo, each had much to teach him, but their lives were as much cautionary tales--how not to live one's life--as examples of how to be a man. When Obama at last discovered that his father was just as human, and just as flawed as the men he knew as a child, it was already too late: he had already made his map of the world, and his place in it, based upon an abstract ideal.
The book is well written--much better than anyone would have any reason to expect from a politician--and full of love and humor. I enjoyed this book, and find myself challenged and inspired to work harder to understand myself and my world, and to make both better.
The books of Douglas Adams, a self-named "radical atheist," make for very amusing reading. But reading this series back to back can leave you relating...moreThe books of Douglas Adams, a self-named "radical atheist," make for very amusing reading. But reading this series back to back can leave you relating a little bit to (his repressed alter-ego, I have to wonder) Marvin the Depressed Robot. (less)
My 5th grade son brought this home from the school library. It's an enjoyable read. Set in China at the time of Ghengis Khan, this is a well-plotted c...moreMy 5th grade son brought this home from the school library. It's an enjoyable read. Set in China at the time of Ghengis Khan, this is a well-plotted coming of age story with enjoyable characters, and interesting and thoughtful detail about what life and society may have been like at that place and time. There are more than a few dark notes, which injects a bit of realism into the story despite the far-away-and-long-ago setting: the hardships of the time seem well represented before coming to the perquisite YA fictional happy-enough ending. My son enjoyed it, too.(less)
T. H. White's classic 1938 re-interpretation of the ancient legend brims with humor and insight, wisdom and delight. (This is a more light-hearted read...moreT. H. White's classic 1938 re-interpretation of the ancient legend brims with humor and insight, wisdom and delight. (This is a more light-hearted read than the re-worked 1939 version, which describes Wart's added experiences as ant and snow-goose.)(less)