This audiobook of re-read transcripts from Kurt Vonnegut's commencement speeches is kind of a strange beast. One narrator takes the role of book edito...moreThis audiobook of re-read transcripts from Kurt Vonnegut's commencement speeches is kind of a strange beast. One narrator takes the role of book editor Dan Wakefield and another reads for Vonnegut. I don't know how many of these speeches were recorded but I found myself wishing they had included the original audio whenever possible or, for the first time, that I had just read the book instead of listening to the audio.
Still, these are Vonnegut's words and they shine through. I found it interesting that Vonnegut here is far more hopeful and compassionate than I would have expected from the guy who wrote one of my favorite cynic's manuals, Breakfast of Champions. In the introduction Wakefield notes that Vonnegut didn't have a standard speech, that he worked out a new one for each commencement address he gave. That may be technically true, although I think it's worth noting that he recycles several anecdotes and he has a number of themes that are pretty much universal throughout.
This probably only really stands out if you're reading or listening to them all back-to-back as presented here, and it's not like he doesn't have anything interesting or enlightening to say. Still, from a package standpoint it feels a little cheesy, and I almost would have preferred one of the longer, more thematically-complete speeches reprinted and then maybe one or two others that diverge the most in favor of completeness. Or maybe it's just a sign that I need to read more Vonnegut, because this left me wanting more.
Which is a bit of a weird place to be when trying to evaluate the book or audio. On one hand it contains a lot of good stuff, on the other, you can find some of it elsewhere (YouTube, for example). It's also nice to see that Vonnegut's actual speeches are as good or even better than the one Mary Schmich wrote that is commonly misattributed to him. Still, this book feels like the kind of content-padded, stationery store-promoted grad gift that is maybe not altogether without value or merit, but also not quite as great as a nice hardback copy of Slaughterhouse-Five. So it goes. I'll give this a mild recommendation and make haste to clear a few more Vonnegut novels off my to-read list soon.(less)
Needing a break from a very long historical novel I was listening to on audiobook, I decided to go with something breezy and funny so I picked up Tina...moreNeeding a break from a very long historical novel I was listening to on audiobook, I decided to go with something breezy and funny so I picked up Tina Fey's Bossypants, which I've been meaning to read since before it came out. In a way, I shouldn't be surprised with how I felt about it; it basically boils down to the same way I feel about 30 Rock. To wit, I appreciate what she's doing, I acknowledge that Fey is clever and funny, but her humor strikes me as visibly effortful. Which is to say, to me it feels like she's always trying very, very hard to make people laugh and it shows. It's not that it doesn't work sometimes, because it does. It's just, when I compare to other books (say… Jenny Lawson's Let's Pretend This Never Happened), I can see other funny people who don't let the seams show quite as much and I laugh more. Simple as that.
Of course, there are other things that Fey's book offers besides labored amusement. She meanders through a pseudo-memoir that also includes some wry observations, she discusses her work/life balance in a candid and I think illuminating way, and she gives a lot of interesting insight into the behind-the-scenes of Chicago's Second City, Saturday Night Live, and 30 Rock. And here's the thing: I like that she does all these things with a witty slant which frequently made me smirk and occasionally made me laugh. Had that been the entirety of the book, I'd say I really liked it. But then she digresses into unfunny and pointless asides like the part where she replies to internet commenters. It's supposed to be self-effacting and showcasing her acerbic wit but I dunno, especially in light of a part later on where she says she can't bother trying to please everyone or respond to her critics it feels like really sour grapes. And, as I said, it's also not really funny in the process so I wonder where her editor was with that. There are other examples like the overlong recount of her honeymoon fiasco and some stuff about her Greek neighborhood. It's not a very long book to begin with and to have significant sections of it that kind of fall flat gives it a sense to me of a typical mid-series episode of 30 Rock: a few gems nestled between long stretches of off-beat circus antics that result in a fidgety audience.
Maybe that makes it sound like I don't like Bossypants or 30 Rock or Tina Fey's comedy, none of which is actually true. It's just, I think, that I feel like I should like all of them a little bit more than I ever actually seem to.(less)
This is a delightful book about magic (the stage kind à la Davids Blaine and Copperfield, not the fantasy kind à la Harry Potter) and the surprising w...moreThis is a delightful book about magic (the stage kind à la Davids Blaine and Copperfield, not the fantasy kind à la Harry Potter) and the surprising ways it intersects science.
There is a dual nature to the book: half of it reads as a kind of memoir of author Alex Stone's post-college life through dual tracks in magic and physics (with an increasing emphasis on the former) and the other half is the approachable dissertations on the overlap between science and illusions. I vastly preferred the latter, wishing more of the book had been devoted to discussions of attention blindness, memory, probability, the neuroscience of senses and so on. Not that Stone's self-deprecating tale isn't interesting or entertaining, it just pales in comparison to these other topics.
Despite some pretty heavy science discussed, the book is pretty easy to follow. Interestingly, the parts I got the most lost with were the insider lingo from the magic world as opposed to the scientific world. Maybe Stone is just much better at introducing the science. There are also plenty of fascinating insights into the world of professional and semi-pro magicians. It is because most of these stem from the memoir bits that I found the half-and-half nature of the book tolerable, I think.
This is a very good, very fast and fun read for anyone interested in either magic and illusions (most everyone I would guess) or applied science (maybe fewer people would identify this way, but I think the "hook" in this case is sufficient to ignite intrigue).(less)
This is a 15 year-old book about personal finance I picked up kind of at random. I don't know anything about Suze Orman except that she's one of those...moreThis is a 15 year-old book about personal finance I picked up kind of at random. I don't know anything about Suze Orman except that she's one of those talking heads on various TV channels/shows I avoid like the plague. But in terms of giving general advice about fostering a healthy relationship with money, she did a decent job with this book.
A couple of the key takeaways I got from this, all of which are quite self-evident but are backed up here with sound logic and compelling anecdotes that spur action:
* Have a will/trust/official legal structure in place to protect your loved ones if anything happens to you. * Invest your money for the future, and take advantage of investment opportunities offered by your employer. * Debt bad. Kill debt with fire. * Having money is less about sums and figures and more about possessing the right attitudes.
My main complaint about the book is that there is an awful lot of mumbo-jumbo about listening to your inner voices and the heart and soul of your wealth or whatever. I get the point she's making and in a way I appreciate a personal finance book that focuses on how to develop a healthy perspective of money's role in your life as opposed to, say, specific tax loopholes or bond market tricks to maximize yield and blah blah blah. Still, it's pretty subjective to devote an entire chapter about the practicalities of investment to use as a unifying theme the concept of listening to your gut. It's very possible my gut is terrible at investment, so what then?
Anyway, I don't think I'd actually recommend this book, mostly because it's old and a lot of the specific information is functionally useless now (although for some LOLs you can read about the magic of CompuServe to teach yourself investor lingo). It is compelling and enlightening in its quirky, antiquated way, but probably most effective in reminding the reader that they ought to read an updated personal finance book.(less)
Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel describes a childhood/early adolescence spent in Iran during the late 70s and early 80s. In a lot of...moreMarjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel describes a childhood/early adolescence spent in Iran during the late 70s and early 80s. In a lot of ways this is a fascinating account and an important perspective on historical events that continue to have resonance 30+ years later. Ms. Satrapi fills Persepolis with a lot of intriguing little personal details and fills it with a sharp, distinctive visual style.
Unfortunately, as a graphic novel, I think Persepolis fails in a key aspect which is that it really has no use being a graphic novel at all. I found the book to be a very slow read which I think is in part because it's very wordy but also because Ms. Satrapi's artwork, for the most part, adds nothing to the narrative. I can't help but contrast this to another graphic novel I read recently, Habibi, which embraced the combination of text and images to tell a story in a way that could not have been handled with words alone. Here we have the opposite end of the spectrum where for the most part the pictures just serve as short- (or long-) hand for dialogue attributors. And even then I think a lot of the time one could understand the tale even without that much context. Take this text-only excerpt from page 45:
"My idea was to put nails between our fingers like American brass knuckles and to attack Ramin.
'Ramin! Ramin! Come out of hiding! Don't be a wimp!'
But my mother arrived in the middle of our euphoria…
'So kids, what are you up to?'
'Marji found us some nails!!!'
'We are going to beat up Ramin!'
'His father has killed a million people!'
'So that's what you want, to nail Ramin? Get into the car, I have a better solution.'
'Really? What's that?'"
The point being that panel after panel passes with very little added by the art to the point where in the end I kept wondering why this wasn't just a straight autobiography.
I also know that autobiographies don't follow the same rules of conflict and development that novels do, but I think the best nonfiction incorporates elements from fiction structure and I think another reason why this book felt so slow to me is that it doesn't really flow very well. Ms. Satrapi tells the story in little vignettes but because there doesn't seem to be a unifying theme and because she felt the need to draw it rather than expand the story in text, the effect is stilted. She seems to struggle to find the balance between focusing on intimate details from her recollection and a broader historical context, something I again attribute to her medium choice.
To a certain extent, I liked the story contained within Persepolis. I don't know if given to a different artist it might have worked better for me as a graphic novel or if someone were to adapt the script to better utilize the medium and permit the same style to remain in place it would be more effective to me. As it was, I felt the narrative within had a lot of promise but the execution lacked to the point where I just wouldn't recommend it to anyone else.(less)
Reading Susan Cain's book about introversion left me feeling very polarized. In a lot of ways, the breadth of research involved is impressive, and the...moreReading Susan Cain's book about introversion left me feeling very polarized. In a lot of ways, the breadth of research involved is impressive, and the sincerity with which she chronicles the research into what introversion is and what makes introverts that way illuminates her passion for the topic. Then again, the book suffers a bit under the weight of its presentation.
Cain makes regular effort to highlight that, despite her own admitted introversion, being an extrovert isn't bad, per se. The problem I found with this is that despite her lip service to one characteristic not being preferable to the other, the book comes across as kind of a manifesto in favor of toning it down or, at the very least, elevating those who aren't as comfortable being the squeaky wheel. I don't know that it was possible for this to not be a factor since part of the thesis of the book is that culture (at least American culture), in Cain's view, values extroversion more than reserved sensitivity. But, despite being pretty introverted myself, I found myself disengaged by the "us vs. them" subtext.
Which is not to say Ms. Cain's findings and arguments are not enlightening and persuasive. Her descriptions of research surrounding the science of introversion, the correlation between introversion, shyness, sensitivity and empathy are engaging, perhaps not revelatory but certainly worth noting. Though at times the book seems to be aimed at introverts as a kind of legitimizing, empowering tome, I think the best audience for the book are people, especially extroverts, who have introverted people in their homes or workplaces who could use some eye-opening as to what makes the more reserved in their midst tick and how to best accommodate them and draw out their strengths.
What frustrated me the most about Quiet though is that Ms. Cain peppers her findings with specific examples of people, using them to illustrate her points. Illustration is fine, and I don't even mind the regular use of case studies, but Cain dwells on these anecdotes as if they were supposed to be universally applicable, all while reminding readers regularly that no generalization is really accurate. This where the book feels padded, similarly to a book I read earlier in the year, A Single Roll of the Dice by Trita Parsi, in which a lot of the details (or, here, personal examples) feel contrived to increase word count to flesh out what might otherwise be a solid 100-page scholarly discussion, leaving something like 170 pages that feel burdened by personal asides and digressions.
To make matters worse, there is a weird structural flaw in the way the information and research is presented such that in the first half of the book Cain persistently references future chapters, saying "...which I will discuss more, later, in chapter X." Then in the latter half of the book, she regularly cites previous topics, like, "...as you recall from chapter Y." It occurred to me that a better overall arrangement of the material would have avoided the cross-referencing, allowing concepts to flow into each other more seamlessly. As it is, it feels disjointed and spread around, often losing the point and making something that should be clarified feel muddy.
Quiet is an interesting read and a decent book, helped along by some somewhat hidden but very useful/insightful pieces of practical advice. It isn't without its flaws, unfortunately, making it somewhat less of a tour de force than it may have had the potential to be, but for those interested in the subject matter in particular, it's worth checking out. (less)
Talk about unusual: I just finished Kevin Smith's sort of memoir-meets-motivational-self-help-vanity-project in one sitting. This is unusual primarily...moreTalk about unusual: I just finished Kevin Smith's sort of memoir-meets-motivational-self-help-vanity-project in one sitting. This is unusual primarily because having the time to read nearly 250 pages in an evening almost never happens, but it's also unusual because you might expect that I'd only devour a book this way if it was amazing.
Well, Tough Sh*t isn't amazing. It's kind of repetitive, honestly: Smith has an analogy about Wayne Gretzky that he references a half dozen times; he talks a lot about how amazing his wife is; he frequently describes his up-and-down relationship with Harvey Weinstein. Sometimes it feels like the individual chapters were written separately and he's refreshing readers who are perhaps not privy to earlier discussions about his pet concepts or jokes, but then he'll do it within pages of each other as well so maybe he just doesn't have a great editor?
The book is funny, but not in the way that generates actual real-world laughter. It's sort of effective as a motivational tome, except that he branches off into über-digression an awful lot so the point gets muddled and spread around. There's some interesting anecdotes, but it's not riveting.
What Tough Sh*t does do well is capture a tone that set me at ease, coming across like listening to a friend sit in your living room and tell stories. Smith is sort of a strange person to write something akin to self-help because his success seems a bit accidental and he spends so much of the book kind of justifying his work that one gets the impression that even he isn't quite sure how it all works out for him. He's smart but he seems to suffer from the same affliction as a lot of people who had just the right mix of serendipity and skill: He assumes that the same lighting can strike for everyone.
Granted, Smith is bright enough to know that's not the case so he tempers the message a lot and comes up with the core concept that action is king. It's a bit Nike in its core motivational strategy: Just do it. Of course, it's easy to say that when the one time he Just Did It without any kind of fallback or failsafe he ended up with the indie hit Clerks. Not everyone is going to do that, so he mumbles something about how success doesn't matter and skims over the fact that he writes about spending money with the casual nonchalance only someone with plenty of it can afford. I'm not saying it's disingenuous, but the book wears enough of its author's bais and "if I can do it, obviously anyone can" over-simplicity on its sleeve to not ever be in contention for a legitimate life manual.
Which is not to say there isn't some valuable insight here. The opening chapter, a crassly told case study in how, from a biological perspective, every living human is the result of astronomic odds, is strangely effective in giving perspective on the moral imperative Smith seems to ascribe dream-chasing. He also makes a semi-convincing case for art as a legitimate pursuit and offers some reasonable-sounding practical advice for tempering expectations when pursuing lofty ambition. The biggest thing the book made me reconsider was criticism, which is a bit of a funny thing to say in a critique of his book.
Smith decries criticism, then blasts critics for getting understandably haughty when he stabs at their means of expression, but there's circular logic going on somewhere (I suspect both sides have valid points). Obviously Smith himself isn't exempt from criticism: He spends a lengthy chapter describing his run-in on Southwest airlines over his weight and seat accommodations which amounts to a very pointed criticism of that company. He is also unshy about criticizing actors, other movies and business execs in Hollywood, so the sword kind of cuts both ways. But he did make me think about what I do when I review books and movies online. Granted, I don't get paid to do it and I'm no authority nor do I even have much of a voice, but it does pay to be reminded sometimes that I am publishing my thoughts and opinions online where anyone, including the creative forces behind those works, can see them. Potentially, me saying negative things could be hurtful and it's worth remembering that while I have every right and justified intention to describe what I personally thought of something or what it made me think about, it's not really worthwhile or even accurate for me to judge the artistic value of someone else's work.
That doesn't mean I should just avoid writing with an empirical tone, only that it's worth it to remind myself as I discuss what other people are doing by way of self-expression, perhaps some day I may be the target of people like myself who are dissecting what I'm expressing. I would expect those people to be honest about what they think or felt about something creative I did, but much as I wouldn't want them declaring whether my work is worthy or not, it's not my place to do so either.
In that spirit, my opinion of Tough Sh*t is that it was half-successful at doing what I suspect it was trying to do. It did make me think some, it was easy to read but ultimately it was probably more for people who are much bigger fans of Mr. Smith than I am. I'm certainly not sorry I read it, but I probably won't go searching for more.(less)
I'm not a fan or follower of Rachel Maddow, as I tend to shy away from talking-head pundits of any political stripe, finding them all insufferably ext...moreI'm not a fan or follower of Rachel Maddow, as I tend to shy away from talking-head pundits of any political stripe, finding them all insufferably extremist, adding little to the national discourse. However, I decided to check out Drift as it is not (on the surface) a catch-all "Here's My Worldview" type of book, but rather a focused examination of the United States' military as it exists today, with an eye cast to the historical series of events that resulted in the current state.
I will say that Ms. Maddow's politics are hardly hidden here, but she admirably refrains from digressing from the topic at hand and stays focused on the expansion of military spending, the changing face of how war is waged since Vietnam and the increased reliance on long-term, low-impact conflicts aided not by sacrifice from the populace at large but by private para-military contractors. She is very thorough in her dissection of the way this all came about, though you can kind of feel the pull of her personal opinion in the way she chooses to levy the responsibility (or is that blame? it's not spelled out, but it's heavily implied) of the shift from citizen-soldier run combat and national burden to deficit-funded and unilaterally mandated on Reagan. I can't say I fully buy that the title's drift began the moment Reagan took office (if nothing else, Eisenhower's speech in 1961 warning of the dangers of the military industrial complex indicates that some of this framework was in place twenty years prior to Reagan), but Maddow makes a pretty convincing case that no matter where it started, war today is almost entirely unlike what it was less than a century ago.
It's particularly telling that Maddow devotes dozens and dozens of pages to both Reagan and George W. Bush's role in the slide from war as a difficult, national decision to one made by the guy at the top but she skims the surface of the roles Clinton and even Obama have played in this transition. Not that she lets them off the hook, far from it. But considering the depth of her dive into the Grenada invasion, Iran-Contra, Desert Shield/Storm and then the post-9/11 conflicts in Iraq (again) and Afghanistan, it does induce some eye-rolls to note how little (other than the Balkans) time she devotes to military action during Clinton's eight year term.
The most compelling pat of the book is Maddow's description of the state of our nuclear arsenal, now aging and no longer necessary from the perspective of what it was assembled to accomplish (arranging the mutually assured destruction deterrent against the Soviet Union), including the number of mishaps and mishandling mini-calamaties that are, perhaps, inherent in trying to maintain 5,000 true WMD, some of which date back sixty years. This is a chilling account of past mistakes, current dangers and policy nightmares that make this an ongoing concern—where "concern" is the lightest possible term for something that ought to be a sort of systemic panic but is really more of a casually shrugged-off low-priority issue. Perhaps books like this one will shine some much-needed light on the pressing need for disarmament, a point in which I find myself in full agreement with Ms. Maddow.
Drift is a book that I'm not sure I can use the word "enjoy" to describe my experience with; it is certainly interesting and well-written with Maddow's casual-but-earnest style that makes it easy reading. More so than anything, I find this to be a book I'd recommend because it invites (perhaps demands is the better word) thought and discourse, which is something that I think both Maddow and I would love to see more of in our politics, especially when it comes to questions of how we exert our military might, how we make those decisions and what we do going forward.(less)
A couple of months ago my wife and I got sucked into some television show about 90s gangster rap and the glib details in that program prompted a discu...moreA couple of months ago my wife and I got sucked into some television show about 90s gangster rap and the glib details in that program prompted a discussion about the shooting deaths of Christopher Wallace (Notorious B.I.G./Biggie Smalls) and Tupac Shakur. I got kind of interested in the story because of course I had heard about it and I remember the news coming out at the time, and I'd heard the grumblings and rumblings since that there was something fishy about the way the murders had never been solved. That interest prompted me to watch the Nick Bloomfield documentary "Biggie & Tupac" (which was okay but not great) and check out Randall Sullivan's book LAbyrinth from the local library.
Like the documentary, Sullivan's book is okay, but not great. The story underneath this is interesting, but watching the two you get the distinct sense that all the conspiracy theorizing smoke is coming from a single source, an ex-LAPD detective named Russell Poole. Poole worked on the Wallace murder case and was part of the task force investigating internal corruption that would eventually be known as the Rampart Task Force. Sullivan goes as far out of his way as possible to make Poole look like a supercop and something of an idealized example of the perfect police officer, which makes sense when you realize that his book hinges on the credibility of this one principal source.
Documentarian Bloomfield cites and interviews Poole in his film as well, which further reinforces the notion that a lot of the "this came from the top" language and veiled (or not-so-veiled) cries of "cover up" originates in a single man's mind and is propagated by those who either believe or are predisposed to believe his tale. Which is not to say Poole is incredible, only that it would be nice if the characterization Poole gives that there were others in his department who agreed that something odd was going on during the investigations would step forward and either state definitively that they believe in Poole's evaluation or that they dismiss him out of hand.
The nutshell version of the yarn is that Shakur and Wallace were killed as part of an elaborate plot by CEO of Death Row Records, Marion "Suge" Knight, to get rid of Shakur who was preparing to leave the label, and solidify the cover story that Shakur was killed as a result of the surging East Coast/West Coast tensions in the rap world, notably between Death Row and Sean "Puffy" Combs's Bad Boy Entertainment label (of which Biggie was a part). By this explanation, then, Wallace's death was more of an opportunity to prove, after the fact, that Shakur's death was related to the rivalry. The explanation doesn't make a lot of sense; if Suge Knight wanted to blame Shakur's death on Bad Boy Entertainment, it might have been more logical to kill Wallace first and have Shakur die as the retaliation. Of course, the case could be made that such a reversal might have cast more suspicion on Death Row for instigating/escalating the tensions as opposed to casting them as simply wanting revenge for their downed star. In any case the story only makes sufficient sense when Sullivan characterizes the attack on Wallace's convoy that left him dead as being most likely intended to eliminate Bad Boy CEO Combs, but his car had run through a yellow light, leaving Wallace's car as the de facto convoy lead, suggesting the bullets weren't meant for him at all.
Sullivan paints a portrait of Suge Knight as a gangster in the sense of Al Capone, perhaps even worse. Sullivan gleeful recounts hearsay of every mythical or urban legend style tale of brutality, intimidation and shady deal perpetrated by Knight and explains away the brazenness by saying that he was protected by a group of cronies who were dual employed by both Death Row and the LAPD. These gangster cops seem to float through Sullivan's narrative like phantoms, showing up when it seems convenient and drifting away whenever legitimate law enforcement personnel try to make solid connections between the label and the department. Of course, they have help from a corrupt Deputy Chief (and later Chief), Bernard Parks (among others), who pushed back on any avenue of inquiry that may have revealed links between the record label and the police.
However, Sullivan somehow manages to both connect and decouple the insinuations at the same time by contextualizing the whole attitude of the department (and perhaps the city at large) in the framework of the heavy racial tensions of the time. This is, remember, the era of Rodney King and the riots in 1992, OJ Simpson and the racially-charged "Trial of the Century," not to mention the event that Sullivan opens the book with, the shooting of African-American Kevin Gaines by white cop Frank Lyga (Gaines, it turned out, was also a cop who may have had ties to Death Row). The problem with explaining why the department wouldn't deal with the possibility that black cops might be working with Death Row is because it fully explains why the department would be reluctant to investigate black cops, period. Sullivan (and Poole) try to characterize the feet dragging by the top brass as indications that Suge Knight had more than just a few dirty cops on his payroll but had the direct or implicit backing at the highest levels, but I think that's just sensationalist wishful thinking. It doesn't necessarily excuse the LAPD from making matters worse by not dealing with dirty cops, but it isn't quite as book-selling as saying "Parks helped cover up hundreds of crimes on Death Row's behalf!"
In a lot of ways that summarizes my complaints with LAbyrinth. Sullivan comes across like Oliver Stone in JFK, making every possible connection he can and tying it all into a central—and intentionally vague—thesis of "There Is A Conspiracy!" Some of the items stick, I'm sure, but for all of Sullivan's shots leveled at the LA media (principally The Los Angeles Times) for being predisposed to dismissing a conspiracy angle, he's no better, just working from the flip side of that coin. Sullivan also comes across as a strangely prejudicial narrator, injecting his personal politics not overtly but at that just-beneath-the-surface level of a slightly off Vietnam veteran talking about the war. There may not be any actual racial slurs tossed or anything you can pinpoint as being obviously racist, but the tone and phrasing leaves no doubt what the opinion really is. It's evidenced even in the way Sullivan throws in disgusted asides about how white cops can't follow the evidence if it looks like it might lead to anyone black being accused of a heinous crime. The subtext of reverse racism is obvious and highly distasteful coming from the author of the book. If these kinds of accusations are pertinent to the material, a truly neutral journalist would let them come in quotations from sources.
I'm really rather torn about this book. On one hand, it's a fascinating look at a set of cases that will probably always be linked together, it's a wonderful conspiracy tale and an incredibly interesting, if frightening, look at a particular time in Los Angeles' history. On the other hand, the book is clumsily written and lacks a lot of journalistic integrity which makes it feel salacious. I suppose that may just come with the territory for conspiracy books (another example is Jim Marrs's Crossfire about the JFK assassination, which has the same grudging appeal to a reader like me), but one wishes there were somehow a more studious examination of the subjects out there.(less)
Whew. This was a tough one for me to get through. About a year ago when I started making a concerted effort to finish more books, I made a little deal...moreWhew. This was a tough one for me to get through. About a year ago when I started making a concerted effort to finish more books, I made a little deal with myself that if I ever had a bit of downtime and I found myself specifically not wanting to pick up the book I was reading, that meant I wasn't into it and I needed to set it aside and read something else. It was an effort to prevent the logjam that sometimes happens when I'm reading a difficult or dry book that I want to finish (either because someone recommended it or because the subject, if not the presentation, is something I'm interested in) but struggle with. I came close to putting Trita Parsi's book about the Obama administration's early efforts at diplomacy with Iran aside in this way because there were some times when I had a chance to read and found myself looking at the book thinking, "Meh."
In the end I powered through because while I wasn't thrilled about reading it all the time, I did continue to stick with it. I think, ultimately, the main complaint I have with A Single Roll Of The Dice is that it doesn't feel to me like it needed to be a book. This is an exhaustive examination of a period of only about three years, and a lot of the detail here frankly feels like TMI. For example, Parsi goes into an insane level of detail on the backstory of Brazil's diplomatic history and their desire to win a seat on the UN Security Council, which he presents to contextualize why Brazil partnered with Turkey in order to get Iran to agree to a diplomatic deal that had originally been floated by the US to ship low enriched uranium out of Iran in exchange for fuel rods (enriched elsewhere) to power a research reactor that would provide medical isotopes. In other words, the US wanted to stall Iran from enriching their uranium toward weapons grade but didn't necessarily feel they shouldn't be allowed to use non-arms applications of nuclear technology.
While it's sort of interesting that Brazil wanted to get involved, the whole explanation of why Brazilian President Lula felt his country could assist here is tangental to the point that Turkey and Brazil had reasons for getting involved and ultimately got Iran to agree to the deal that US and European negotiators some months before had been unable to sell to Iranian officials. This is but one example of where Parsi over-explains, possibly just to show off how much he knows about all of the details of the complicated matter of diplomacy with Iran, but loses the forest for the trees.
I think in the end the core story here is fascinating but this should have been an in-depth article, something like 30-40 pages worth, condensed to its most pertinent essence, and not a 200+ page book of wearying tales of which ambassador was present in which meeting and what sources say was discussed and how they relayed the information to the press, ad nauseum. Most tellingly, the drama conveyed by the snappy title does not carry through to the sea of minutiae within.
I certainly didn't hate this book, and the subject that compelled me to check it out from the library pulled me through to the end, as a pleasant side effect of the belabored point is a pretty decent education on the history and current state of international relations as pertains to Iran. There's also a very good overview of the Iranian elections which caused so much news cycle coverage a few years ago, told from both the internal perspective of Iran as well as from the external point of view as seen by the rest of the world, and by those inside the Obama administration. For that reason alone I might be tempted to suggest that someone with some general questions about the state of affairs in Iran check out this book. But then again, it's possible I'd recommend it only because, for now, it's the most timely portrait of that and even then, it's probably been supplanted by newer works covering the latter half of 2011 and the first part of 2012. And those would probably be shorter, more journalistic articles. By the end of this year, I suspect the reasons to read this book would have almost disappeared entirely unless someone really wanted to know exactly what US-Iran relations were like as of late 2011. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.(less)
Jenny Lawson is a recent discovery for me. I came to be aware of her website, The Bloggess, following the Beyoncé (the giant metal chicken) post. As a...moreJenny Lawson is a recent discovery for me. I came to be aware of her website, The Bloggess, following the Beyoncé (the giant metal chicken) post. As a result, I don't know for sure how much of what appears in Let's Pretend This Never Happened is lifted directly from her blog, how much is expanded or condensed from other blog posts and how much is new material. I say this because the Beyoncé entry appears late in the book, verbatim from the blog as near as I can tell. That's not really a complaint because the original post was awesome and deserves to be included. What I mean, really, is that it's possible that if you're a longtime reader of her blog, some or most of this won't be fresh material.
For me, that doesn't really matter because like I said, there was only one brief chapter (worth re-reading anyway) that was familiar. And, I suppose, if you were a longtime fan of Lawson's blog, you might be the kind of person to pick up this book just to have it, or just to support her career. So I'll assume for the sake of the argument that you're like me and un- or passingly-familiar with The Bloggess.
The main thing to be said up front is that Lawson is hilarious. I mean, really, really, hilarious. It's hard to remember the last time I laughed out loud at a book as frequently or as uncontrollably as I did reading Let's Pretend. It got downright embarrassing at points to be reading this book on the train/shuttle combo I take to work, because I'd be sitting there, shoulders shaking with laughter, tears and snot running down my face, side aching and trying desperately to convince my fellow commuters that I wasn't having some sort of attack. Which of course I couldn't, because I was laughing too hard to breathe or speak. I'm really surprised no one called an ambulance.
What surprised me a little is how touching the book can be as well. It's not really a see-saw kind of thing that plays with your emotions, but there are nuggets of sweet truths peppered throughout, just enough to make you understand that this isn't simply a stand-up routine in prose. Lawson is brutally (I actually want to use the word "ruthlessly" here) honest, over-sharing almost on every page, but to perfection. I really can't think of anyone else who can make a chapter about three miscarriages and the resulting mental breakdown that understandably accompanied them snort-beverage-through-your-nose funny, but Lawson manages it.
I will say that, in case you didn't catch the implication from the above, Lawson's humor is raw, no-holds-barred and totally inappropriate. Which is the same as saying it's not for everyone. I assume, anyway; maybe there aren't any people out there who dislike jokes about taxidermy and OD'ing on laxatives. What do I know? I do know that there are people I can think of to whom I wouldn't necessarily give this book as a gift, so maybe that's all I'm really saying. But for me, this was just a funny, funny book from cover to cover.
I must be really weird about comedy, though. Because my inclination is to give this book four stars, even though I loved it. Somehow something that makes me laugh feels like... I'm not sure. Easy, maybe? But then I just got through saying that I couldn't think of a book that had made me laugh as much as this. I guess something makes me think of humor as sort of disposable, as if it could only ever reach a certain plateau if it also contained a riveting plot or something. But then I have to remember that this is a memoir, and plot isn't really the point. Then I start to think, "Yeah, but does this book really belong up there with my all-time favorites?" Perhaps not. But then again, I can't think of a single reason for anyone not to read this book unless you're the kind of person who doesn't find Lawson's brand of warped, irreverent, neurotic writing funny. At which point I decide to stop being stingy with my ratings just to be a grump and give it my highest praise.
Some things I liked about Bruce Bartlett's book about tax reform are as follows:
1. The writing is clipped, precise and unadorned. For a book about, of...moreSome things I liked about Bruce Bartlett's book about tax reform are as follows:
1. The writing is clipped, precise and unadorned. For a book about, of all things, taxes, this is a welcome decision and it works to have the book broken down into concise chapters that stick to a topic, cover the material and then move on. Bartlett doesn't waste time trying to over-explain everything, relying on the reading comprehension of the reader to draw the necessary conclusions.
2. Bartlett takes a refreshingly moderate stance on the political aspects inherent in conversations about taxation. Bartlett worked for the Regan and Bush I administrations, but his views aren't Glen Beck riot conservatism, he just happens to be somewhat Republican-leaning. The faults he finds with the resistance to tax reform are widely spread and he's not afraid to lay the blame wherever it is found. One gets the sense that if all contentious topics in politics could be discussed in this manner, there might be a chance for legitimate, effective, reasoned change in this country.
3. The book is extensively researched, exhaustively referenced, and full of supporting evidence for the opinions and presented facts.
Now, some things I didn't care for about The Benefit And The Burden:
1. The no-nonsense prose on display here is almost so bare as to be challenging to muddle through. The salvation is the brevity of each point, but my own ignorance of economics and tax principles really made this a trying book at times. This isn't really a fault with Bartlett in and of itself, but for anyone hoping to have a gentle introduction into modern tax theory and economic principles, start somewhere else because Bartlett doesn't have time to carry you along.
The way that this manifests as a negative in the book is that it's sometimes hard to decipher who the target audience for the book is. I presume economists are perfectly aware of all this information and a piece directed at them could have been shorthanded all the way into an essay. Know-nothing laypeople like myself may find the book to be a bit insider-y, presuming basic familiarity with a lot of the core concepts which can make a lot of the book seem foreign and unfathomable. The best I can figure is that this book is for highly educated people with a decent background in economics, to whom this may be simply an extended persuasive op-ed, but considering the inflammatory state of national politics at the moment, it's hard to think that the narrow band of moderate academics make up a sufficient demographic for a viable book sales projection.
2. The brief chapters and extensive "Additional Reading" sections make the book feel a bit like an annotated bibliography rather than a complete work in itself. It's sort of cheap to praise a book for being well-referenced and also to complain that the book relies on these references for support, I know, but I did feel that there was the potential for a middle ground where some additional detail was included (perhaps more quoted source material?) to make the book feel more stand-alone without artificially inflating the presentation.
Overall, I felt that Bartlett was very persuasive. The Benefit And The Burden is essentially an argument for Value Added Taxes (VATs) which are essentially labor taxes that are paid and credited through the production chain until the burden falls on the consumer (like a layered sales tax at the federal level). Bartlett lays out how current taxes work, explains why tax increases are going to be necessary in the near future and then describes why VATs are the best option for managing the necessary tax hikes to avoid deficit fallouts like inflation and weakened US economies. Bartlett is also pretty fair to detractors of VATs as he devotes plenty of time to defining alternate methods and highlighting some of the serious (or not so serious) arguments against VATs.
I wouldn't say I necessarily recommend the book to just anyone, but for people who want a decent overview of the current economic state and the potential issues that could result from it, and then want a well-thought-out proposed solution to those problems, this is a good place to start.(less)
The principal thing that stands out to me now, having finished The Blind Side and read Moneyball, is that Michael Lewis really knows how to tell a sto...moreThe principal thing that stands out to me now, having finished The Blind Side and read Moneyball, is that Michael Lewis really knows how to tell a story. In Moneyball he takes a story that is ostensibly about the Oakland Athletics and their general manager but is really about economics, valuation, conventional wisdom and applied analytics and somehow manages to make it riveting. Likewise in The Blind Side he takes a story about a poor black kid who gets adopted by a rich white family, who just happens to be a genetic specimen ideally suited to being a left tackle in American football and makes it resonate.
Admittedly, as much as I loved Moneyball, I first heard about The Blind Side through the film, only realizing the book it originated in was written by the same guy later on. But the story in The Blind Side didn't really have much draw to me: It looked schmaltzy and smacked of revisionist history at best or some kind of white salvation-bringing at worst. Still, I felt I owed it to the author to give the book a try, even if the Sandra Bullock vehicle didn't have much appeal. And even with that, I still procrastinated on reading it because my expectations and assumptions kept saying to me, "Ick."
The funny thing is, I wasn't entirely wrong about The Blind Side, I don't think. Michael Oher, the central figure in the book, is a poor black kid with specific characteristics that make him valuable on an offensive line. He is adopted by a rich white family who accept him and provide for him to try and give him a better life. It gets kind of schmaltzy sometimes. One occasionally gets the impression that some harsh edges to the story have been sanded down. Now and then the great white saviors, lifting the otherwise doomed minority into the transformative glory of sports, make their self-congratulatory appearances.
However, none of that makes The Blind Side any less in terms of story and intrigue. The one thing that is a bit of a problem is that within the construct of the rags-to-riches story there isn't really all that much naturally occurring tension and drama, in part because while the initial challenges are riveting at some point about halfway through Michael begins to accept the help he's being given and from then on it's less a matter of if he will succeed as to what margin. Lewis does a good job of framing certain events late in the narrative such that they provide enough dramatic heft to propel through to the end.
My favorite parts of the book were those that were most similar to Moneyball, those that discuss the factors that led to left tackles being among the highest paid players in the NFL, including dissections of Bill Walsh's west coast offense and Lawrence Taylor's earnest approach to rushing the quarterback. They serve really only to give context to the marvel that is Michael Oher, but I found them to be anything but disposable. Whenever I started to slide ever so slightly into apathy about the Tuhoys and Oher there would be a new chapter about the mechanics and art form that is being a professional left tackle to rekindle my interest.
Overall, I liked The Blind Side. Lewis is a gifted reporter and writer and the story is compelling, especially as Lewis presents it. I didn't find it as indispensable as Moneyball but it was certainly worth the read and convinced me to go ahead and put the rest of Lewis's books on my to-read list.(less)
The appeal of Stephen King, I think, has always been that he has a kind of everyman style which allows his work to be relatable, so he starts describi...moreThe appeal of Stephen King, I think, has always been that he has a kind of everyman style which allows his work to be relatable, so he starts describing you or people you know and then his warped imagination kicks in and the effects are visceral and emotional. Often King uses this to punch you in the gut with cold fear, where other popular-but-critically-disdained authors might go for a well-timed weep (Nicholas Sparks) or maybe a coordinated sigh of relief (John Grisham).
One gets the sense from On Writing that King is a little bitter the literary community has crammed him into a box labeled "popular but trashy." Its hard to feel too sorry for a guy who can presumably console himself by swimming Scrooge McDuck-style in his swimming pool filled with money, but in reading On Writing you start to understand that the reason King never made it into that snobby group of anti-taste, pro-pretense folk is because he doesn't really care much about anything as high-falutin' as art or pushing the boundaries of the novel format or challenging preconceptions of what a novel can be. He's a storyteller. Someone, somewhere seems to have decided that the literary equivalent of telling ghost stories around the campfire is lowbrow and while you can tell it rubs him the wrong way, King finally seems to decide the problem is with the critics, not with him or his legions of fans.
I like King's approach to writing. His advice makes sense to me, although he seems to be in favor of flying by the seat of your pants, finding that sketchy-to-describe place where the characters seem to take on their own lives and end up acting of their own accord. King comes as close as anyone I've seen to describing how this takes place, but even then, he can't quite get over the big cloud-like shape on the blackboard labeled with "HERE BE DRAGONS." It's just too much like magic to try and describe how something that a person logically ought to control (it's coming from your own mind for pity's sake) in fact seems to be coming from somewhere else.
He advocates that the key to being a writer is to read a lot and write a lot. Makes sense to me. He has a few pieces of practical advice, too, although he doesn't dive very deep into specific mechanics other than to recommend actually reading Strunk & White, avoiding adverbs and making rewrites 10% shorter than the first drafts. A lot of the rest of his advice is about process and this advice is the kind that I don't know I've seen in other places. You can find plenty of other people who tell you to avoid adverbs and be merciless with rewrites but I haven't encountered anyone who suggests keeping the first draft to yourself and getting help only once the whole story is written (King uses the metaphor excavated). I'm not sure anyone else would bother explaining why you should scoot your writing desk off into the corner of a room (though make sure the room has a door) instead of creating a monument to writing with some huge behemoth as a writing-room centerpiece. The best part, to me, of On Writing is the way King describes the Ideal Reader better than I ever could (and I have tried).
I can't be sure if On Writing would appeal to anyone who didn't have aspirations of writing. I think if you aren't a writer and have no real desire to be, but you live with or know a writer, it might be interesting to get some insight on the kinds of things they might find fascinating and useful, but the only other people I can see really caring about this book are people really interested in Stephen King as a person. An awful lot of On Writing is the story of Stephen King, truth be told. It's not, perhaps, a "proper" memoir, but because King is mostly known just for writing, it's maybe as close as one might come. The first third of the book is a series of anecdotes and memory snapshots (entertainingly) told in King's casual and readable style most of which serve to kind of explain how King got to be a writer and what circumstances lead to his stock and trade being a storyteller. Most of the rest of the book is the section about the actual act of writing and then the last maybe 15% is an odd sidenote about the accident he suffered in the late 90s, getting struck by a van. It does kind of come full circle as a sort of writing parable, but it feels like an odd inclusion here, in a way.
I really liked On Writing. I don't even say that with a shuffle of my feet and a half-apology in my voice, either. I actually kind of expected to like it and I very much did. I think its practical information may not be applicable to every writer, but it felt applicable to me, and I hope it will make my writing better. The pseudo-autobiographical parts at the beginning were fun to read and interesting, also they were inspiring and able to show how tenacity is possibly the writer's primary tool for success. And it's a blisteringly fast read, too. I'm no speed-reader but I tore through this book in under five hours. I can't be sure about the broad audience appeal, but I can say that if you have any inclination toward writing at all, at least give it a shot. You could even probably skip the third part where he talks about getting run over. Spoiler alert: he starts writing again. But even with this strange postscript, there's enough here to make it well worth the quick read.(less)
Sick Girl is a very frustrating book to read. Amy Silverstein should be applauded for being frank and brutally honest about her feelings regarding her...moreSick Girl is a very frustrating book to read. Amy Silverstein should be applauded for being frank and brutally honest about her feelings regarding her nearly twenty year fight to stay alive with a transplanted heart given to her when she was only twenty-five. But the takeaway from most of that forthrightness is that she's kind of a whiny pain in the neck.
The usual recipe I've seen in memoirs is that they start out at some random pivotal moment, suck you in, then back way up to the beginning and slowly explain why you should admire/appreciate/identify with the author. Sick Girl works in reverse in that the opening chapter kind of caught my attention as Silverstein contemplates suicide and I found myself thinking, in that context-deprived way, "Yeah, I can see how she'd get there." Then the author spent the rest of the book convincing me that she was an unappreciative, immature, sad sack of a bore who I found very few redeeming characteristics emanating from.
Let me frame it this way: This is a rich girl with a loving father and stepmom, a practically saintly husband, a wonderful adopted son, apparently many close friends—including some very sympathetic and caring ones, who lived far past her expected ten year projection post-transplant, was able to graduate law school, work a job, exercise regularly, and basically live her whole life in spite of a congenital heart defect that could have killed her long before she found out she had heart issues and needed the life-saving operation. For heaven's sake she ran with the bulls of Pamplona—a feat many people leave unchecked on their bucket lists—and somehow through all of this she manages to find nothing to fill three hundred pages other than the occasional nod to these abundant blessings and a whole lot of grousing about how terrible it is to be a heart transplant recipient.
I could almost understand if her pre-transplant illness had been protracted, but her hospitalization seems to have been under a year in total. I might be able to see the blackness she describes if her principal complaints—chronic infections from a suppressed immune system, regular (if temporary) misery from the immunosuppression drugs she has to take, lots of crummy doctors and a nebulous loneliness—weren't, as near as I can tell, either just parts of the human condition or small prices to pay for, you know, life. But try as I may, I was never able to see just what Ms. Silverstein had so very rough.
And maybe that was where I thought the book was the most frustrating, because I really wanted to see the "other side" of the story. The world is awash in heartstring-tugging tales of inspirational courage from cases like hers that defied the odds, with the patients just steadfastly refusing to give in to despair or depression and choosing instead a sunny outlook or a faith they hold dear to carry them through. But Sick Girl fails on a fundamental level to express just how someone with the gifts the author has could possibly continue to choose to be thankless and pessimistic. There are so many points at which her effort to be understood falls flat as her whining and inability to see anything positive makes one wonder if she is in any way deserving of the fortune she so carelessly squanders on self-pity and blame-casting. And tactless tricks like focusing endless, numbing pages on rehashing in so many ways the turmoil she feels about casting a veil over her illness and how miserable it makes her to put on a brave face while skimping on life highlights such as the adoption of her son do little to camouflage her tale, either.
It feels icky to judge a person this way, but in writing this book Silverstein invites it and while I admire her courage in at least trying to explain why she feels the way she does, I closed the book wishing she'd invested half the time she did trying to convince herself she was justified in her sour attitude and outlook trying to find a new way of looking at things instead. Especially when, laid out as it is, it seems so painfully obvious to even the most outside observer.(less)
Mindy Kaling's witty and honest pseudo-memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), is a light read that I enjoyed quite a bit. K...moreMindy Kaling's witty and honest pseudo-memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), is a light read that I enjoyed quite a bit. Kaling has a knack for striking a harmonious balance between sarcasm and sincerity, setting her conversational tone as the witty pal you wish you had, able to lampoon others and herself with equal grace.
The book reads kind of like a "best of" selections from perhaps a well-known blogger: intimate, revealing, scatterbrained, prone to random asides and brief chapters about pop culture or wry observations before picking up on the disjointed narrative about her life so far. In a way, the book is revealing in the sort of organic fashion; one gets the sense that they know Kaling pretty well by the end and they've learned about her the way they might over a lengthy conversation in a Starbucks somewhere, watching the shifts change at least twice.
Of course, there isn't much to tell in a memoir for someone who is in her very early thirties, so the appeal here is going to be Kaling's humor and this is a funny book. I found myself laughing out loud a number of times. For example:
...[I]t was surprising that I killed it as a babysitter. Er, maybe "killed it" is a wrong and potentially troubling way to express what I'm trying to say. The point is, I was an excellent babysitter.
Toward the end, Kaling runs out of official memoir material and the last quarter of the book consists entirely of random essays and tidbits of self-indulgence which aren't bad necessarily, just sort of frivolous. The sum total is very light, both in tone, gravity and actual content, as the book weighs in at a generously whitespaced 222 pages, if you also include the Acknowledgements section. On one hand, it's breezy and fun and amusing so it's not like it isn't worth a read or anything. But for a $25.00 hardcover?
I waited on a hold list and checked the copy I read out from the library. I felt like this was a good way to go, because I have to say that I think I would have been disappointed if I'd spent cover price for it, or even a discounted $15 or so. I don't want to get into the valuation for entertainment discussion here, but I finished the book in a very short amount of time and while I liked it an awful lot, I just can't seem to reconcile the enjoyment I gleaned with the MSRP.
Which is no real detriment to the content. Stripping the value proposition away, this is a recommended book, whether or not you're a fan of The Office. It's funny, endearing, and revealing; it's perfect for chasing away a low mood on a rainy evening.(less)
I love science the way I love history: When presented by a storyteller, it assumes the inherent magic that I suppose those who find it fascinating jus...moreI love science the way I love history: When presented by a storyteller, it assumes the inherent magic that I suppose those who find it fascinating just at its surface level always appreciate. Unfortunately, science and history both are often told with a dullness, a dry lack of drama which the facts themselves do not really lack. Too often I get the impression that people tasked with relating the wonderful truths about science and history feel like if they elevate the palatability of the delivery they may inject too much license, which would undermine the fundamental essence of truth that must accompany work which is often difficult or laborious. The point missed by these people (too many of whom attempted to instruct me about these subjects during my school days) is that even a fascinating truth can be told in such a way as to make it utterly uninteresting.
Enter Bill Bryson, working through his own struggles with science (using a fair bit of history, it turns out), he writes A Short History of Nearly Everything which is the storytelling historian's book about science, knowledge, progress and, well, pretty much everything that flows from that, which is pretty much everything. Bryson guides the reader with an impressive clarity through the lives and works of the scientists, amateurs, thinkers and tinkerers who unlock the secrets of our world, the universe and everything in between. Rather than just stating cold facts or even narrating the facts, he choses to dissect the people behind the theories and formulas which make up the basis of what we think we know. There isn't a point at which Bryson shies away from the heavy subjects, assuming the intelligence of his audience is sufficiently like his own: Capable of grasping even advanced concepts provided they are presented in a knowable way. But when Bryson himself finds that in his exhaustive research there is no one to provide him a hook he can use for his own understanding much less one that can be transferred to his willing students, he doesn't dismiss the reader as too dim to grasp it thus implying he does, he shrugs his own shoulders and says, "it gets deep from here, so deep even the scientists themselves don't always get what they're talking about."
Bryson has a gossipy way of describing in good-natured humor the quirks and personalities of the names we all have heard but perhaps know little about other than the laws or theories attached to their monikers. In not pulling punches for the titans of modern thought, the author humanizes them and makes them relatable, understandable and even all the more admirable. If the guys unlocking the secrets of gravity and thermodynamics and atoms and geophysics and astronomy can struggle with reclusiveness, boorish behavior, petty squabbling, professional misconduct and close-mindedness, perhaps they aren't these mythic figures after all. But then that means they're just people, and if they're just people doing great things then perhaps some day so might I. The crossing of streams, as it were, that Bryson employs where he hops from biographical history to geology to astronomy to world history to astrophysics to politics to oceanography makes one almost wonder why course curriculums in school are divided at all. There was never this sense of interconnectedness conveyed to me in my studies and there was certainly never this much riveting attention paid to what was being explained. If I could have Bill Bryson as my one and only high school instructor, I'd gladly do it all again and I'd probably even study for the tests and hand in all my homework on time.
This book is inspiring, the way all good nonfiction books are. It gets your mind working, it sparks imagination. There are also times when it is terrifying (check out the section on asteroids and their potential to impact the Earth and then see how well you sleep that night), hilarious, shocking, and fun but it is also relentlessly, unapologetically educational from first page to last. I love this book, I would and will recommend it to any and everyone. I listened to it on audiobook borrowed from the library and I now I must buy a physical copy. In fact, it is pretty amazing that for all the educational value of A Short History of Nearly Everything, it never relies on complicated diagrams or wild charts to convey its information. Bryson gets the job done—better than almost anyone—with just the power of his words. Someone please convince this man to write textbooks.
Or better yet, someone just get this book into the hands of students, before it's too late for them, as it (almost) was for me.(less)
As the father of a two year-old daughter, I've seen first hand the dramatic leap into pretty/pink/poofy/princess gear and garb that seems to happen fa...moreAs the father of a two year-old daughter, I've seen first hand the dramatic leap into pretty/pink/poofy/princess gear and garb that seems to happen far faster and far more completely than I ever would have considered. My daughter is a girly-girl, enchanted by hairdos and pretty nail polish and singing princesses. I knew a lot of this was uncomfortable to me from her earliest months, but I admit that there are certain battles that, in the individual moments, don't feel like they're worth having. If I take her to the dollar section at a big box store and tell her to pick out something (within reason) and she selects a Hello Kitty notebook over a fairly neutral one with a giraffe or a red-and-orange striped pattern, well, I told her to pick didn't I?
But these concerns that lurk in the back of my mind, primarily focused on the self-centeredness of princess as a concept, the fixation on external appearance, the raw entitlement inherent in royalty fantasy and the materialistic reverse sublimation when the term is adopted by older children or (sigh) adults. So I was enthusiastic to read Peggy Orenstein's Cinderella Ate My Daughter, hoping it would clarify some of these nebulous concerns and provide some reasonable insight on how to combat it.
On the bright side, Orenstein does a good job of describing the problem, critically outlining the progression of the culture and providing a reasonable view of the potential dangers. The topics here are kind of all over the map because the subject matter spans everything from Disney Princess marketing to Toddlers and Tiaras pageants to toy line gender division to social media and the Internet's impact on teenage and pre-teenage girls' sense of identity and sexuality. Distressingly, despite the book being well-researched, it became pretty clear to me early on that 192 wide-margined pages was not going to be sufficient to cover the topic(s) in reasonable detail.
And this where Cinderella Ate My Daughter kind of disappointed me, because it feels very rushed. Rather than focus on these topics and dive into scholarly research to a deep degree, or even heavy investigative journalism, the whole thing smacks of time-sensitive, here-and-now snapshot reporting which is interesting—don't make any mistakes, I ripped through this book—but I was never able to shake the feeling that I was reading an extended blog post or Salon.com article. The self-inserted, personal account tone added to this, as did the multitude of timely pop culture references, everything from Hannah Montana to Twilight to Monster High dolls, it anchors this book in the present tense and, as a sad side effect, makes it also feel disposable. Even, to an extent, behind the times as the final chapter discusses the Disney movie Tangled in the future tense when I read the book less than a year after publication and my daughter has devoured the movie approximately ten thousand times already on DVD.
I suppose the subtitle of the book, "Dispatches From The Front Lines Of The New Girlie-Girl Culture" should have tipped me off that this wasn't supposed to be a long-view kind of volume, but I still hoped that even without the step back approach it would contain some practical advice for how to deal with this deluge of pink and princessy. Toward the end, Orenstein does offer some vague and mostly common-sensical advice. Perhaps the best thing the book contains is a reference to a different book, Packaging Girlhood, which she says offers some sample conversation guides to help deal with media literacy and suggestive content. I'll put that one on my to-read list. Unfortunately, Cinderella Ate My Daughter doesn't quite get the scholarship level right and doesn't even offer anything directly useful, either, making it an interesting and thought-provoking—if ultimately frustrating—read.(less)
My wife has been pestering me to pick up Lynda Van Devanter's memoir of serving as a nurse in the Vietnam War for years. The thing is, I don't really...moreMy wife has been pestering me to pick up Lynda Van Devanter's memoir of serving as a nurse in the Vietnam War for years. The thing is, I don't really like memoirs all that much. Too often they spend a third or more of the book going over the kinds of "start at the beginning" backstories which don't really add as much to the framing of the meat as the authors think. This is especially true of stories where either childhoods were especially harsh and difficult (nearly always highlighted in tales of survival as the place the narrator learned how to never give up) or were more or less idyllic (usually setting up a grand disappointment or disenfranchisement later). It's rarely as simple as these narrative devices let on and they just sort of bore me, especially since I usually only care about the hook of a memoir, something the author can describe that I've not heard about before. I've heard plenty of stories of happy and sad childhoods. Spare me.
Home Before Morning isn't exempt from this memoir-itis, relying on the idyllic childhood context to contrast the horrors of war and show how the oppressive futility of trying to piece dying soldiers back together shattered her once peaceful little existence. Whatever else you may say about the meat of the book and the skillfulness of its crafting, the basic premise is hardly novel. That doesn't make it bad, I suppose, it just makes it familiar. I guess it's difficult to look at a book about a naive Catholic nursing student volunteering for a tour of duty from my lofty 21st century ivory tower, decorated as it is with all the dissecting literature, film and coursework of the past forty years and not say, "Well, jeez. What did you expect, lady?"
Still, Van Devanter managed to make a slow but effective incision in my post-irony viewpoint and drag me back to a time when patriotism wasn't just a jest adopted by people to serve a political purpose, when ideals weren't viewed with cynicism and suspicion wrought from too many disappointing years under questionable leadership. Home Before Morning shows, in a way, the birth of all that, chronicling at its best moments the death not of an individual's innocence, but of a nation's.
Some of Home Before Morning doesn't completely work. The last third of the book is devoted to Van Devanter's return to the States, chronicling her disenchantment with what she (and other vets) termed "The World." The World was unhappy with the war and for the most part shamefully took it out on the soldiers who, as Van Devanter points out, largely were as opposed to it as those who hadn't gone into the service. Some of this section is powerful, riveting and insightful but parts of it drag a bit as she describes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder faithfully but without near as much passion and impact as her tales from the one year in the 71st Evac. The choices of what to skim past (her marriage) and what to bog down in detail (her stint as a dialysis nurse) and mostly what to try to weave as a narrative thread aren't always the best. A key example for this is the recurring theme of the question that continues to plague her throughout the war and the aftermath: Why? For as often as Van Devanter asks the question, she never makes any serious attempt to answer it, even when some thoughtful introspection about it would be deeply appropriate like in the epilogue where she describes her return to Vietnam in 1982.
A couple of places where Home Before Morning really shines is in its depiction of the horrors of war through the lens not of the hyper-masculine killing machines in the infantry units (I'm thinking of works like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket), but through the eyes of the sort of ironically necessary medical personnel who have to be on hand to try and undo the work of the warring soldiers on both sides. For some reason the idea that the trauma of war would seep into the lives of medics never really occurred to me, as if treating wounded soldiers was no more traumatic for hospital staff than the doctors and nurses working in a Stateside facility in a particularly violent neighborhood. I'm grateful to the book for giving me a different perspective, one that extends to all emergency medical personnel.
One thing I wish Home Before Morning had was a follow-up; the book's narrative stops in 1982 and I had to go online to find that she eventually re-married, had a daughter and passed away in 2002 and spent a lot of the years between the publication of the book and her death serving as a spokesperson for women veterans and that this book was in part the inspiration for the television series China Beach. Obviously that's not the kind of thing that would appear in this book, but I was interested enough in the tale, and in Van Devanter herself, to want more when it was over. I guess that says something in itself.(less)
There is an element to Timothy Ferriss's treatise on how to decouple yourself from the standard life track of school-work-retirement that rings a bit...moreThere is an element to Timothy Ferriss's treatise on how to decouple yourself from the standard life track of school-work-retirement that rings a bit like P.T. Barnum. At times, hearing Ferriss wax about creating revenue streams that dump money into accounts without real heart or soul commitment gives one a cognitive dissonance effect as you wonder if the book was written as some kind of hokum he cooked up to finance his latest round of jet-setting and continent-hopping. There is a passing reference late in the book where Ferriss seems to indicate that writing is what he feels is his passion, but it still feels like he's somehow gaming the reader.
Which would be more of an offense if he weren't so persuasive in his efforts to sell the notion of skirting standard practices and focusing on that which is truly enjoyable in life. The early sections in the book where he describes the drudgery of the daily grind felt like he was talking directly to me at times. His passion for travel is infectious and his ability to convince readers that this sort of drastic course correction is not only possible but maybe imperative really worked on me. I suspect the efficacy of his arguments will depend somewhat on how dissatisfied the reader already is going in, but a lot of the stuff about embracing the worst case scenario and delineating your personal goals is easily adaptable to even smaller shifts in the program.
Of course, not everything Ferriss presents as shrug-worthy is really so easy. His recipe for creating businesses sounds like the kind of thing anyone could do, but I suspect that if anyone could come up with a business model that would permit a Ronco-style cash flow you couldn't throw a rock without hitting one of his oft-referenced New Rich. And at times he seems to be advocating a strong link between being kind of a steamrolling jerk with being successful. Maybe that's actually true, but if so, I'd have to consider if Ferriss's brand of success is really something I'm interested in.
Some of the sections that are full of very specific, practical advice can feel a bit like filler, and in my edition can come across as dated. I guess this is the hazard of a book that advocates technology solutions; newer developments that could be easily leveraged to facilitate some of the things Ferriss discusses (like social media or crowd-sourcing) are ignored or perhaps simply post-date the edition I read. Then again, considering Ferriss's unusually luddite-like approach to communication tools considering his leveraging of other technological solutions, maybe he would think of the babysitting necessary for building cults of personality like Twitter or Kickstarter to be wastes of time better spent living the "dreamlines."
I'm of two minds about The 4-Hour Work Week. On one hand it's incredibly compelling, and easy to read, full of thought-provoking and motivating bits and pieces. On the other hand, it's never clear how many of these strategies are effective independently of each other. As a full lifestyle design blueprint, I'm sure it could work out for people willing to devote all the effort to modeling your life after Ferriss. For those who don't necessarily want to tell people that they only check email once a week or practice staring down people just to learn how to maintain eye contact at the risk of a profound butt whooping, I'm not sure there is enough here to really make this more than an interesting thought exercise/case study in subverting societal expectations.(less)
Let's assume you were wondering if there was ever a market for blogging before the semi-coherent daily ramble became a legitimate form of communicatio...moreLet's assume you were wondering if there was ever a market for blogging before the semi-coherent daily ramble became a legitimate form of communication ten or twelve years ago. To confirm this, you need look no further than Donald Hall's Life Work, a semi-topical serialized set of quasi-daily ruminations on the subject of work, self, life, death, family, history and the intersections of all the above. Written in the very early nineties, this book is a blog, regardless of whatever memoir title might be attached to it. The short essay formatting, the tangental discussions on a broad central theme; the only things missing are ironic hyperlinks and the occasional "sorry I haven't posted in a while, I'll be better soon, I promise!" entires.
I was assigned Life Work as a part of an English course I took during one of my failed attempts at college. This would be back in like 1996, when the web was just starting to be ubiquitous and when the notion of an online life was still mostly science fiction. In that time, which sounds quaint to describe and depresses me greatly to think of a time less than twenty years ago as such, the notion of a person spending an hour or more a day on actual post mail as opposed to email or Twitter or whatever was still current enough to not seem strange. Reading the book now, it kind of boggles my mind to know that something so central to communication when I was not even just a small child but a teenager, a near-adult, has all but been antiquated. Hall describes his work, his idealized day involving the anticipation of a day spent working on poems and essays and letters and books, then relaxing with his wife and attending to various chores come evening. He describes the workdays of his parents, his grandparents and great-grandparents. He talks about work in a general sense, he talks about it in great detail.
You can tell that Hall is a poet; his prose and essay stylings are peppered with dips into lyrical rhapsodies. He's also kind of hard to like sometimes: he is stuffy and pretentious one moment and then grounded and rootsy the next. I kind of liked that he manages to convey the complexity of a real person by preserving the daily shift in tone and mood, in refusing the temptation to not edit down or smooth over these transitory notes. Still, there are a lot of points where Hall's topic of work, as presented in this proto-blog format, become a kind of slushy non-thesis, weighed down by specifics that I don't think anyone asked for.
Partway through the book, Hall deals with a health crisis, which puts a new spin on the topic (and a welcome one, though saying so sounds absolutely terrible I know), propelling the end of the book through with a renewed urgency that adds a nice edge to the languid tone of the first half. I did like that Hall kind of sold me (as if I needed selling) on the quiet life of the comfortable country writer; his depictions of an unhurried New England life ignited both my aspirational drive as well as some wanderlust to explore the semi-rural areas of Vermont and New Hampshire he creates in mental landscapes. Perhaps these places don't or never did exist, but I'd like to go and see for myself.
And maybe, then, this is the final success of the book. In a collection of meandering essays about living and working, Hall has made me interested in doing both, doing more with each, and finding a happier junction where the two—inevitably, as Hall believes—meet.(less)
From the front cover, Ehrman's position on the question of human suffering as relates to the nature and/or reality of a living, all-powerful God is pr...moreFrom the front cover, Ehrman's position on the question of human suffering as relates to the nature and/or reality of a living, all-powerful God is pretty clear. What surprised me about the book God's Problem is that he uses the Bible almost exclusively as his reference point for constructing his argument that the question of why humans suffer ultimately undermines the tenets of Christian (and by extension, Jewish) belief.
In an obvious-in-hindsight sort of way, it makes sense as any set of arguments based on other texts would quickly be dissected by biblical theologians who lean heavily on the Bible as the divinely inspired work of God and therefore the only resource of any consequence when dealing with such weighty concerns. Curiously, while this approach is likely the wisest in terms of most likely to be effective, in practice it comes across as more or less a reverse sermon with a structure that feels almost comically familiar to anyone who has attended a variety of evangelical churches. Ehrman presents a passage of scripture to support his thesis, describes the context and meaning of the scripture and ties it in to his argument. The only real difference is in the conclusions drawn. For example, wherever a pastor might interpret the verses as suggesting a forward looking prophecy of events to come (Daniel, Revelation, as examples), Ehrman argues that they are meant to be viewed as if the writers were intending the audience to be contemporary. It matters because either argument hinges on the truth of the original intent, but I found it difficult throughout God's Problem to fully accept at face value that Ehrman's conclusions were any more credible than any other scholar/preacher's.
As for the core arguments about what the Bible says about suffering and how they are ultimately lacking, Ehrman's thoughtful examination is pretty thorough. I came away convinced that from a biblical perspective the issue of human suffering (especially the suffering of innocents) is unfortunately poorly defined and even more poorly explained. However, to me, this was hardly a novel recognition. What Ehrman didn't do an effective job at, and it's arguable whether or not this was even an intent, was convincing me that this gap was sufficient to undermine the entirety of the Christian religion. There are two key places where Ehrman's arguments are weak, one being that he casually sidesteps the necessity inherent in religion of faith to overcome when logic and limited human understanding inevitably fail. I suppose since faith is sort of an argumentative trump card he recognizes that those who employ it will discount his hypothesis anyway but it would have been enlightening to hear a discussion about how he personally was able to subvert the call for faithfulness in scripture in order to arrive at his agnostic conclusions, especially in the section where he discusses how parts of Job suggest that it is arrogant folly for humans to question God on the topic of suffering to begin with.
The other failing in God's Problem is that the detail applied to discussions of apocalyptic thought, divine punishment, and even a less-than-omnipotent deity is not given to the intriguing concept of evil (either as a force opposing God or as a side effect of humanity's fundamental flaws) and why it does or perhaps does not exist. It's likely that there simply aren't enough scriptural bases for these kinds of discussions in a book that relies on the Bible as principal reference but for a topic I think many popular notions of suffering center around it could have been enlightening to branch out into other sources at least for this notion.
It's difficult to gauge the success of a book like God's Problem. I suspect there are but two audiences: One that prejudices to agree with the author and are looking for scholarly affirmation of their foregone conclusions. The other that is convinced he is mistaken at base and will find only the flaws in his logic (or faith) to be of any significance. For the small minority who aren't looking for validation but prefer a simple thought exercise, it's an excellent read. For everyone else, you already know what you think about it.(less)
I like to think the success of nonfiction books is reflected in how often and to what extent I use the information contained inside to spark conversat...moreI like to think the success of nonfiction books is reflected in how often and to what extent I use the information contained inside to spark conversations. I suppose this means that I tend to view provocative or controversial books as the most successful, but books that are challenging tend to be the ones that stick with me, that impact my life as they demand additional thought and discourse. Using this criteria to measure NurtureShock means it must be a tremendously successful work. It seems I cannot stop talking about this book, plaguing any and every listening ear directed my way with anecdotes and searching constantly for openings to wedge my hackneyed portrayal of the discussions NutureShock presents into every conversation I'm engaged with.
The book is divided into discreet chapters which do form a broad thesis but this is only truly revealed in the final chapter (Conclusion) and hinted at in the introduction. Beyond that you can be secure in picking and choosing your way through NurtureShock as if it were a magazine consisting of several fascinating and well-researched articles on the latest, most surprising findings from the field of child care and development. The articles even have a magazine-like air to them, leaving the bulk of the scholarly details for the careful appendices and reference sections at the back, focusing instead on presenting a deliberate but accessible narrative of the often remarkable findings of modern child development researchers. They discuss how our attempts to build a color-blind society have resulted in less racial sensitivity, not more. They write about the latest findings in the mechanisms infants use to learn how to talk and what techniques parents use that can aid--or hinder--their vocal development. There is a chapter about teenage deception and rebellion and the sometimes backwards approaches parents ought to use to deal with and manage them, and a chapter about lying and the unexpected ways children learn what it is, how to do it, how to be successful at it and why they rely on lying to accomplish their goals.
In all this is a riveting book and it feels much shorter than it really is. I especially found the discussion of the experimental Tools of the Mind preschool curriculum intriguing as it describes a means of structuring child's play in an effort to encourage self-control, symbolic thought and extended task-maintenance. Only one or two of the chapters was anything but completely absorbing and even those topics which didn't immediately strike me as compelling contained plenty of fascinating asides and descriptions of clever research methodologies which kept the pace brisk. More than anything though NurtureShock manages to do two things: One is that it reminds parents that that kids are neither binary (either/or) creatures nor are successful parents beholden to a magical instinct that is either present or absent. As a new parent who often hears the useless advice that parenting is best handled "with your gut," it's nice to be reminded that mistakes in my parenting efforts aren't necessarily a result of my lack of parental mojo but perhaps a simple miscalculation that can be corrected. The other is that NurtureShock reminds logical-minded parents how often common sense and ration are demonstrably superior to this prevalent notion that collective wisdom holds the answers. When NurtureShock describes how Baby Einstein DVDs do nothing to improve a child's vocabulary or comprehension, they explain the research behind what ought to be a reasonable notion that infants and toddlers have no business sitting in front of the TV for hours on end.
None of which is to say that NurtureShock is without flaw: The brief, magazine-style writing leaves some depth unplumbed and often chapters end with questions left unanswered. Likewise, the narrative flow is occasionally disjointed as Bronson and Merryman skip around in an effort to make a point more impacting at the expense of clarity of thought. Still, it's a refreshingly thorough book in a know-it-all field full of speculation and assumption and I can't recommend it heartily enough.(less)
Marilyn Johnson's ode to librarians is a meandering, unfocused look at the old guard of librarianship and the ways in which the new information cultur...moreMarilyn Johnson's ode to librarians is a meandering, unfocused look at the old guard of librarianship and the ways in which the new information culture is adapting the profession and the technological tools are being adopted by it. In some ways the book is a terrible failure, digressing badly on uninteresting topics like reference libraries in Second Life and the challenges of cataloging zines. It reads in many ways like a blogger talking about their first forays into the digital age that exists outside of their MSN homepage which is cute but uninformative.
But then occasionally Ms. Johnson hits on something interesting or profound like the conversation on library politics using the New York reference libraries as a case study or the challenge of archiving both from a practical standpoint for physical media and in the age of digital ephemera. On one hand the unevenness of This Book Is Overdue makes it hard to recommend, but bringing a pre-existing love of libraries and their dedicated stewards can make it into a brief and inoffensive traipse through a joyful subject.
For maximum effect I recommend checking it out from the library.(less)
A brief little guidebook containing very little more than few dozen succinct mnemonics about how to follow Pollan's similarly summarized notion of how...moreA brief little guidebook containing very little more than few dozen succinct mnemonics about how to follow Pollan's similarly summarized notion of how to eat well: "Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants." It's a simplified sort of anti-diet book that has enough plain-English common sense to appeal to people, like me, who feel that food should never have gotten as complex as it seems. There are more detailed books that cover similar territory (and have slightly different conclusions drawn) like Marion Nestle's "What to Eat," but this is a good introduction to the whole food approach to nutrition for people who still think overwrought ideas like the food pyramid or oversimplified quackery like Atkins are insightful.
I have to point out one glaring flaw with this book though: The tiny, heavily whitespaced paperback lists a suggested price of $11.00! This is a book that can be scanned through in ten minutes or read cover-to-cover in 30-45 minutes. The book is useful, but perhaps not quite that useful. Seek markdowns or library copies for best value.(less)
There is a key lesson within Bruce Weber's book about baseball umpires, As They See 'Em: The lesson is that no matter how avid a fan of baseball you m...moreThere is a key lesson within Bruce Weber's book about baseball umpires, As They See 'Em: The lesson is that no matter how avid a fan of baseball you may be, it is highly likely that you take for granted the arbiters of the game's rules. In fact, there is a telling portion near the beginning of the book where Weber carefully reveals that even lifelong fans of the game aren't all that familiar with the rules themselves.
Of course, because the baseball umpire is ubiquitous both in the pastime of the baseball fan (casual or hardcore), and in fact is symbolic in its own right as a result of its association with that profoundly American activity, but is often unconsidered the book holds a particular fascination found in the unveiling of the secret worlds behind everyday things we take allow to exist below our fields of view.
Weber is an excellent tour guide in this arena. He covers the ground from umpire as a symbol of authority, umpire as denigrated root cause for the woes of the sports fan, umpire as the unheralded guardians of the integrity of the game, and even umpire as the men (and women) behind the masks. Granted, Weber is sort of aimless in his approach to the subject, preferring to loosely connect a sort of stream-of-consciousness flow that wanders between personal experience (he attended umpire school and subsequently umpired a few amateur and semi-pro games), anecdote, journalism and contextualization.
A lot of the book is devoted to trying to understand where umpires fit into the sports fans' worldview and why: Weber discusses historically significant controversial calls and relates how the umpires involved viewed the incidents as well as providing context for the circumstance itself and the subsequent fallout. There is also a lot of discussion about the trials of becoming a major league umpire and the history of umpiring's often contentious relationship with baseball bigwigs.
What comes through most potently is that Weber, by the time he sat down to write the book, felt a new appreciation for umpires. You get the clear sense that he admires and respects the incredibly, impossibly difficult and certainly thankless job they perform. He stumbles a bit when trying to ask the questions of why someone would want to do this for a living or what it might take to improve their public relations perceptions though he gamely stabs at the subjects. In the end, the irony is that it seems (for me at least) umpires really just needed a light shone on them to illuminate what they do and what their value is to baseball. My perception of the game is changed, perhaps subtly, but definitely for the better.(less)