I’m about to review a book that was written in 1979, and there’s a good reason for that. The reason being: I just read it. Kane and Abel was written bI’m about to review a book that was written in 1979, and there’s a good reason for that. The reason being: I just read it. Kane and Abel was written by Jeffrey Archer and from the paperback cover I am told over 100 million people have read this book, too. As of today, May 24th, 2012 [Note: when I originally wrote this review], there are 7,015,432,377 people living in the world. So, if my math is correct, you’ve never heard of this book or Jeffrey Archer.
I, too, had not heard of Mr. Archer or his book. Then a few weeks ago, my boss’s boss left our company. As he prepared for his departure, he went through his office trying to discard as much of his personal possessions as possible. Colleagues received pens, desk ornaments, pictures, a company logo embroidered white oxford dress shirt. I even saw him hand out two frequent customer cards for Hale & Hearty (an NYC soup, sandwich & salad chain) (with two stamps on one and three on the other - ten stamps gets you a free soup). Then there was this book, Kane and Abel. He came around to my group and said, “Who wants this book?” He held up this crappy, mass-market paperback novel. It looked like any other mass-market paperback novel, which meant it didn’t look like anything worth reading.
No one said anything.
“This is one of my favorite books ever, ” he said.
I like to read. I try to read books that are good. Books that are well-written, interesting, educational, captivating, non-hackneyed. Sometimes you’re on a roll and you read four or five great books in a row. Other times, you search and search, finding nothing, and you begin to believe that you’ll never find another book worth reading ever again. It’s a vicious cycle. I figured , hey, you like to read, he’s a pretty smart guy, he says it’s a great book, don’t judge a book by its cover, you’re always looking for a good book to read, plus it’s small, it’s easy to carry, which is good because you don’t have an iPad, you don’t even have a Kindle, you’re a loser, why don’t you get a Kindle you cheap bastard, they are only like $100 [back in 2012], you can probably buy one used for $12, seriously, you know three-year olds that have iPads AND Kindles and you, a 32-year old man, still go to the library like some derelict, you make me si-.
“Sure, I’ll take it,” I said.
He handed me the book and I made some ridiculous comment that made it sound like I was going to read it and give him a book report on it, which made even less sense since he was no longer going to be working at the company.
A few weeks went by, during which I finished this other book I was reading, and I needed a new book, so I picked up Kane and Abel. It started off decent. Right off the bat, you can tell what type of book this is. This is a story book. I don’t mean, story book as opposed to, say, a picture book. I mean, this book is all about the story. I like to break authors down into 4 categories:
1. Authors who care more about ideas and plot 2. Authors who care more about language and words 3. Authors who care about both 4. Authors who care about neither
For example, in my opinion, Vladimir Nabakov cares more about language and words. Lolita is a classic more because of how it’s written and the words he uses, then it is because some old guy likes prepubescent girls. Sure, that added to the public’s fixation with the book, but it takes less precedence. John Grisham’s books are all story and plot. Writing? What writing? Meanwhile, a book like Crime & Punishment by Dostoevsky has a stronger plot and story than your standard Nabakov, but cares less about the actual language while placing much more importance on the ideas being expressed in said plot and story.
When you come across an author who equally brings great language to a great story, you have an amazing book. The inverse results in most shit that’s peddled around and we call ‘beach reads’ because that’s all we’ve come to expect from literature.
Kane and Abel begins in category 1 and somewhere around page 300 transforms into a category 4.
I love how the 30th Anniversary, mass-market, paperback version has this quote from quintessential category 1 author Dan Brown on the cover: “The ultimate novel of sibling rivalry.” This quote is inapt because the Kane and Abel in the novel are not siblings. They are not related at all. But, for Dan Brown, whatevs.
Kane and Abel are two men, born on the same day, in completely opposite fashion. Kane is the son of a wealthy Boston banker and he’s brought into this world like Simba being paraded before the subjects of Pride Rock. Abel (born Wladek) is a polish bastard born in the woods to a woman who dies during delivery and is found by the son of a poor trapper. After years of vastly different childhood experiences their lives begin to intersect. If they are siblings of anything, they are siblings of having the same drive and desire to make a name for themselves and bring honor to their families at any cost. They are both intelligent, ambitious men and their predilections lead to the drama that unfolds.
So far, so good. But then, Mr. Archer begins to include details that feel extraneous, plot twists that are too neat, and stuffed in to create more tension, but never would have happened in reality. Towards the end, Archer even throws in a line of dialogue with such self-importance, he seems to not realize how ridiculous it sounds coming from a character he’s built up to be formidable, imposing and un-trendy (i.e., not the sort of guy to make crazy off-the-cuff remarks involving cartoon characters):
'Responsible statement,’ said William [Kane], outraged. 'The Mexican government hasn’t made a responsible statement since they claimed Speedy Gonzales would win the one hundred metres at the Helsinki Olympics.’
Seth McFarlane called, he wants his Family Guy jokes back.
Now maybe the Mexican government really did make that statement (so far I’ve found nothing on Google) and I’m the idiot for not knowing that, but, regardless, that line in that part of the book fits as well as a bear in a bikini (cut to Family Guy animation of a bear in a bikini)
But the real problem with the story is that its premise lacks the basis to support it. These two men are bitter enemies. We get this drilled into our heads over and over. Their hate for each other dramatically affects their spouses, children and grandchildren. But why do they hate each other? For me, the answer is not convincing.
Abel makes his wealth in hotels. Kane through banks. Early in Abel’s career, he is employed by a sympathetic, but careless hotel magnate who ends up losing all of his money in the stock market crash of 1929. All of his hotels are mortgaged to the hilt and he invested the money in the market, which just went belly up. So now he has no money, he can’t repay his mortgages and the bank reclaims the hotels as collateral. This is rough on the magnate guy and he kills himself. Abel blames the bank for his mentor’s death, and, specifically, he blames the one, up-and-coming bank executive who processed the repossession, Mr. William Kane. So he pledges to take Kane down whether it takes one year or the next forty.
Either Polish people take things way too seriously (in which case, I’ll stop making Polish jokes) or this book and its 656 pages don’t have legs to stand on.
Over one hundred million people have read this book. Unless you’re going to the beach for ten straight days, I think we can stop the number there....more
I’ve never had a dog. That may be the reason why I have absolutely no interest in reading Marley & Me or The Art of Racing in the Rain. After watcI’ve never had a dog. That may be the reason why I have absolutely no interest in reading Marley & Me or The Art of Racing in the Rain. After watching the author, Maria Goodavage, on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, however, I felt like I would enjoy Soldier Dogs. The book tells the story of our military working dogs (MWDs), how they save lives and are an essential part of our military operations. Not to be confused with Dog Soldiers, a British horror flick where (human) soldiers are attacked by werewolves in the Scottish Highlands.
Soldier Dogs is at times touching, informative and inspiring. You read about feats of bravery where dogs put themselves on the line to save their handlers. You learn about the tremendous bond between handler and dog. You learn about the extensive training dog and handler alike must go through before seeing the front lines. You learn how we get these dogs, where they come from and what they are used for. Most of the dogs are not American. They are purchased overseas in Europe where hunting and tracking dogs have been bred for many more centuries than their U.S. counterparts. These dogs cost thousands of dollars. A sad fact learned (regardless of how well cared for by their handlers and trainers) is that MWDs are classified as equipment. That’s right, Fido is considered on equal par with a rifle, a water bottle, a helmet.
That’s a sticking point in the book. Because so many of these dogs perform acts of heroism, in the eyes of their handlers these dogs deserve recognition - medals for acts of valor. If they do, it’s unofficial. For example, when a human soldier receives a Purple Heart and pins it on his dog. Officially, as pieces of equipment, these dogs don’t and can’t receive commendation. They’re dogs, not people. This distinction causes problems at multiple levels, including how to deal with the dogs when they are no longer able to perform their duties due to either old age, injury or shellshock. Most dogs deal well with the aspects of war that plague their human counterparts: the wastefulness of life, the destruction and devastation, death and dying; to them it’s all a game. They get to search for stuff (in their case: IEDs and other mines and weapons) and they’re rewarded with a chance to play with their favorite squeeze toy or ‘Kong’. They don’t know what they’re looking for. To them it could be as innocuous as pine cones. They just know, if they find it, they get rewarded. Why make things more complicated? More and more dogs, however, are beginning to show symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and dealing with depressed 'equipment’ is becoming a unique struggle for the military.
For the most part, these dogs (equipment or not) are an underappreciated force for good. They are the ones using their exceptionally-developed senses of smell to detect chemicals, IEDs, bomb making parts, ammunition and even bomb making suspects. Some dogs are trained to chase assailants and can track them even hours after they’ve fled the scene like some sort of real-life version of Deja Vu (the one with Denzel Washington); that’s how good their noses are.
The dogs in this book are pretty amazing, just like the soldiers they work beside and protect. If you have any interest in learning about the role dogs play in war and what they go through, then I think you’ll enjoy Dog Soldiers. And if you’ve never had a dog, you may notice yourself wanting one very soon.
[Note: I originally wrote this review in June 2012]...more
The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar, which came out in 2010, is the type of pop psychology book that Malcolm Gladwell made famous, and was mimickedThe Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar, which came out in 2010, is the type of pop psychology book that Malcolm Gladwell made famous, and was mimicked by about a hundred other writers. Atul Gawande. Steven Levitt. Sam Gosling, Nassim Taleb. Alexandra Robbins. Jon Ronson. I can keep naming them. Barbara Ehrenreich. Dan Ariely. Charles Duhigg. Steven Pinker. Barry Schwartz. Jeffrey Kluger. Geoff Colvin. Too many.
So how does the Art of Choosing stack up?
The book tries to answer questions about the importance ‘choice’ plays in our lives. Why do some cultures prefer more choice than others? How do we perceive choice? How can we improve the choices we make? How do the choices that we make impact us? The book does this through a series of vignettes and recapping social psychology experiments and what we’ve learned from them. Experiments with kids, experiments in grocery stores, experiments with kids in grocery stores, etc.
I chose to read this book. The stark image of an apple and orange on the cover got my attention. That was my choice. As I learned in The Art of Choosing, perceiving that I have a choice lets me feel that I have control over the direction my life is heading, which will give me satisfaction. Other tidbits include:
*Sometimes too much choice is debilitating (like how people prefer to choose among 7 items instead of 50) *When it comes to having to choose to let someone die, we don’t want that choice (like letting a doctor decide whether to take your brain damaged newborn off life support) *For more trivial matters, we don’t want to choose what other people chose for us (like my friend telling me to watch Breaking Bad over and over again) *Choice choice choice choice choice
At the end of the day, does it matter? Are you going to sit, paralyzed, and ponder on the choices you make? No, you’re just going to go the grocery store and complain about how there are too many different types of cereal, grab some Lucky Charms and keep going about your miserable existence.
Plus, you’re probably not going to retain much from this book either. Maybe a few stories that you can play up at cocktail parties. At best, the people on the other end of the conversation will think you are well-informed. At worst, they’ll just be impressed that you know how to read. Does anyone other than Malcolm Gladwell retain what they’ve read in his books? Maybe something particular like:
*In Canada, the majority of Junior Hockey players are born in January and February *It takes 10,000 hours of practice at a skill to become expert *Something tipping point
The rest is diffused and lost in the jumble.
What will I take from The Art of Choosing? Probably just one thing: that at the end of the film (and book) Sophie’s Choice, you learn that years ago Meryl Streep’s character had to choose which one of her kids was going to be gassed in a WWII German concentration camp, her son or her daughter. It was an excruciating choice. She chose to let her daughter die. I had never seen the movie (or read the book). Thanks for choosing to spoil the movie for me, Sheena Iyengar.
[Note: I originally wrote this review in July 2012]...more
The other day I reviewed a relatively recent pop-psychology book called, The Art of Choosing. Along with many others, I casually mentioned author AtulThe other day I reviewed a relatively recent pop-psychology book called, The Art of Choosing. Along with many others, I casually mentioned author Atul Gawande. This book is his.
I’ve read all 3 of Atul’s books (we’re on a first name basis). They are all related to medicine. He’s a surgeon and a pretty good author. His first two, Complications and Better, discuss how medicine is in an inexact science with sometimes unrealistic expectations and the challenges doctors face trying to help their patients. They were interesting reads and I got to learn about flesh-eating bacteria and other stuff I hope I never contract. On a scale of 1-10, I give them B+’s.
Then he released The Checklist Manifesto. It’s not specific to medicine, but since that’s what he knows, it’s mostly about medicine.
Newsflash: Humans make mistakes.
We are also proven to be awful at multi-tasking. We can do menial tasks without much concentration and carry a conversation, but ask us to focus attentively on separate tasks and we fail…bigtime. Even when completing well-known tasks, over time we skip steps, we gloss over, we simply forget. I’m just happy I know what to do on the toilet (I think).
That’s where the checklist comes in. Checklists have been proven to reduce accidents and save lives in the aviation industry (and others). Pilots rely on them extensively. But doctors, who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to attend prestigious medical schools, who aced their MCATs, who basically act like Alec Baldwin in Malice, generally scoffed at the idea.
This is the problem Atul faces in the book. Not only how to convert physicians and surgeons into checklist advocates, but deducing the best form and style the checklist should entail. Just having a checklist isn’t enough. In high pressure, time-limited situations, you need to cut the fluff and keep the crux. There’s an art to crafting an effective checklist.
It’s taken me only a few paragraphs to explain the heart of this book, the general premise of which is that checklists can be highly effective tools to reduce both surgical mishaps (e.g., leaving sponges and scalpels inside patients) and hospital-borne illness and infection (e.g., infected lines, doctors washing hands), and account for unforeseen circumstances by making sure the necessary backups are in place and lines of communication between colleagues are open.
Simple enough, right?
It only takes Atul 224 pages to cover the same content. Which isn’t even that long; 224 pages is basically just an excessively verbose novella. Most of his research came from a paper he worked on for the WHO (World Health Organization). He simply added some pop psychology type stuff, talked to people in aviation, stretched out some themes, and so forth.
Most likely, rather than read this book, I could’ve learned everything he had to say in a nicely presented infographic. As a result, I’m slightly bitter for having taken the time to finish it. One thing’s for sure, Atul has a checklist for how to publish a New York Times Bestseller and he follows it faithfully.
[Note: I originally wrote this review in July 2012]...more