Friday, February 20, 2015

How We Got To Now by Steven Johnson

Becky knows how much I like historical philosophy, which basically is looking at events and making conclusions on why they happened or how they created future outcomes and their significance. If that sounds kind of dry, it is anything but. Normally those insights at a minimum make you reevaluate your concept of events. Sometimes they can even make you accept events and outcomes from a different perspective that in turn brings that perspective to bear on subjects outside of the scope of the book's subject. Becky gave me this book for Christmas and it's a well done addition to the genre.

Johnson proposes that six needs or inventions have made a significant contribution to how our world is today. The six are Glass, Cold, Sound, Clean, Time and Light. I found glass the most interesting, starting with it being a blend of solid and liquid simultaneously. The cascade of events and inventions for me was the best done of the six but he made a good enough case for all six.

The book would be enough with those six but his final chapter looks at inventions and concepts in two broad categories, incremental changes and intuitive leaps. It blended nicely with the thought presented in an earlier blog post "the Innovators" and pulled the whole discussion together.

If you liked "The Innovators" you'll like this. It's a much shorter read but a good one.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

An Officer And A Spy by Robert Harris

If you've ever heard of the Dreyfus Affair then you probably know it involved a Jewish French officer wrongly accused of treason. Beyond that, the details get kind of murky, meaning I had no idea about the details.  You can read a history book to get the details or have a more enjoyable read by sitting with an historical novel and looking up the details later if you feel the need.

Robert Harris is an excellent craftsman for this kind of literature and he doesn't disappoint in the retelling of one of the most infamous incidents of French pre-WWI history. In brief, a French captain is convicted of treason, publicly humiliated and sent to rot in horrendous conditions on Devil's Island.  A young staff officer takes over the army intelligence section sometime thereafter and soon starts to doubt Dreyfus's guilt.

The following events would make for a great TV mini-series, although critics might complain that you couldn't find this many venal characters at such high government levels in real life. They'd be wrong.  Harris has based all the major character's actions and outcomes on existing historical research with only some dialogue and personal dramatic flourishes to make for a more enjoyable read. If you want to take a deeper dive into the story, he provides plenty of recommended books to get the facts without story telling touches. This is a good read and excellent context for the disaster that was French participation in WWI.  With generals like this, no wonder they lost so many men who eventually mutinied.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This has gotten favorable press lately and it's deserved, but...
The story involves a German orphan and his sister prior to WWII and a blind French girl and her father in a parallel time.  Parallel is the key word because each chapter is a couple of pages long and bounces back and forth between the two as they age, the war begins and ends and their paths converge.  A subplot, which may be the point of the story, is a jewel that may or may not be cursed.  As all the parts come together, the tension should mount, but it is lessened by moving back and forth in time.  That time shifting gives a clue as to who lives and dies, at least to a point, and for me took away from the story.  It was not difficult to understand where in time the characters were, it was just mostly unnecessary and a contrivance instead of asset to the story.

That said, the author did an excellent job in portraying each character, no matter how slight their role and the writing is beautiful.  I liked all the characters I was supposed to like and the story was good.  As is the case with many of the books in this blog, Jackie read it before I did.  When I asked how she liked it prior to me reading it, she said "I want to see what you think about it."  We came away with the same conclusion.  Given the accolades, we expected a bit more.  Very good book, just left us a bit flat.  If you want to read a more riveting look at occupied France, look at "Suite Francaise" by Irene Nemirovsky which was blogged about years back. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

History with context and flow can be great reading. If it is done by an excellent craftsman with a reporting background, it can be a joy and an education.  This book is all of that.  Maybe that should be at the end of this post but know that Isaacson has nailed it in this latest addition to his many well-received tales of famous people.

In "The Innovators" it is not one person, but the fairly complete history of computers, from the initial concept of a computer by a brilliant 19th Century woman, through the steps toward invention and finally to where we are today. He weaves in the contrast of outcomes between brilliant loners and teams of brilliant people. To not give too much away, no matter how bright the single individual, the great idea seldom got far enough to reach a broader audience. The computers and supporting systems we have today came from teams.

At the beginning of the book, I'd read for a while and put it down, even though that section was interesting.  The further into the book I got, the longer the segments.  By the last 100 pages or so the book flew by.  It's that kind of book.  Everyone in the family will love this.

Friday, January 16, 2015

"Yes Please" by Amy Poehler

"When you are pregnant you can get away with a lot of sh*t. Women really are at their most dangerous during this time. Your hormones are telling you that you are strong and sexy, everyone is scared of you, and you have a built-in sidekick who may come out at any minute." - Amy Poehler, "Yes Please"

So, unlike most of my friends, I’ve never seen Amy Poehler’s “Parks and Recreation.” I also stopped watching Saturday Night Live right around the time that Poehler and Tina Fey left – mainly because it coincided with me liking to go to bed before 11:30pm, but if they ask, it’s because my world wasn’t complete without them.

Ok, so we all know how I felt about "Bossypants" And this is what I’ll say about “Yes Please”. If you like Amy Poehler, you’ll love this book.

Also, it' worth noting here that Mary and I have always referred to ourselves as the Amy Poehler and Tina Fey of the Everyman. Which I'm guessing is how you guys refer to us, too.

Moving on.

I liked this book a lot - there were parts that were laugh-out-loud  funny and parts that were touching. It’s a quick read and has some fun name-dropping and behind-the-scenes stories. Plus, I get the sense that I’d just like Amy Poehler if she’d ever return my calls. But I’m pretty sure nobody in the family will read it for reasons like….you guys really don’t care about Amy Poehler? And so I respect that. But some of my blog readers will dig this and this is how you’ll know, guys: if you liked/read the following: “Bossypants” or “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” – you’ll like this for sure. So check it out and let me know what you think!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

For those who have thought "if only this or that happened, my life would be different" this book is for you.  Malcolm Gladwell starts with the proposal that our lives are influenced by when we were born and then gives examples that make the one point and expand to other influences over which we have no control.

It appears that people born in about a 3 months calendar span are inordinately represented in the highest levels of hockey, at least in North America.  Turns out that the youngest levels of the sport start a somewhat inadvertent winnowing process by allowing kids of a certain age who have reached that age by a certain time to play organized hockey.  Those who are the oldest in that segment are naturally a little bigger, stronger, faster and more mature.  In turn, those kids catch the eye of coaches who select all star teams and those who will receive added instruction over the year.  This trend continues throughout the player's formative years, resulting in a distinct advantage based solely on birth date.  If the selection process were to happen multiple times a year, with shifting cutoff dates and multiple additional training camps throughout the year, that advantage should disappear, which is the case in countries with a different training process.

Another trait is the number of hours a person practices their sport, art, or other activity.  For those at the highest achievement levels of pretty much everything, they need to devote 10,000 hours of focus on that activity.  They don't have to start out with the most aptitude, although some level of ability is needed, but the key is getting to that milestone.  Gladwell gives enough examples in diverse fields to make a compelling argument.

Finally, when you were born over the years can have a huge impact on success.  Those who become giants of industry, the arts, science, etc. could be just another practitioner forgotten by time by being born as little as 3 to 5 years either side of their actual birth date.

He finishes the book by looking at his own life, going back over generations and the chance occurrence of factors that allowed for one outcome over another.  For anyone who has had some amount of success in their lives, especially if its at the very highest level, thinking over these factors over which a person has no control should engender every increasing amounts of gratitude and decreasing amounts of pride.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan





"Was the painting meant to depict a feeling of hope or was it hopelessness?...The painting reminded me of those illusions that changed as you turned them upside down or sideways."




If you enjoy books that transport you into another time, place and culture then I think you will enjoy Amy Tan's most recent novel, The Valley of Amazement. However, if you're anything like me, you might think the title sounds a little too 'fantastic' at first. I actually avoided reading the book for that reason, when it was first published, even though I have enjoyed three of Amy Tan's earlier novels (The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God's Wife, and The Bonesetter's Daughter). Trust me, the title really is essential to the plot..

Amy Tan is a master storyteller- her language and prose are simply beautiful- and her novels always contains plenty of historically accurate details and context. I enjoy books that fill in the gaps of my knowledge and this one certainly did. I learned so much about the inner workings of finest courtesan houses of old Shanghai as well as, the political and cultural upheaval that enveloped China as the country transitioned from an imperial dynasty to a Republic.

The major themes here deal with the complex nature of mother-daughter relationships, love, betrayal, family secrets and the search for identity. I found the characters to be well-developed, credible and memorable. I should caution you, however, that there's a fair amount of explicit sexual content within these pages. And while it is appropriate within the context of the story, some readers might find it offensive; others might think it's tantalizing.

The story begins in 1912 in Shanghai and ends forty years later. The narrator, Violet is the half Chinese daughter of an American woman who also happens to be the madam of one of the finest courtesan houses in Shanghai. In the opening paragraph,Violet says, "When I was seven I knew exactly who I was: a thoroughly American girl by race, manners and speech, whose mother, LuLu Mintern, was the only white woman who owned a first-class courtesan house in Shanghai." Such certainty was soon disrupted when Violet is abruptly separated from her mother and her whole world is turned upside down. And so begins Violet's heartbreaking journey of self-discovery, survival and reconciliation. If you like stories about strong, resourceful and clever women you will love the women in this book. 

At 600 pages this book is not a light read, nor is it quick, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and think it's one of Amy Tan's best so far.