Monday, May 04, 2015

The Road to Character by David Brooks

The New York Times columnist David Brooks has tackled a thorny subject by discussing character but has done a good job of getting the reader to understand what has characterized the term from antiquity to now. It has varied with time, yet those individuals he has highlighted have some commonalities, most notably a dawning awareness of personal shortcomings that must be addressed in order to live a better life.

Since none of us are fully self aware and "a better life" does not have the same meaning for everyone, Mr Brooks can not give us the approved solution for arriving at the goal.  He does give you some wonderful personal life stories of soldiers, philosophers, government and social workers and more that help him construct a possible path to a better character.  You might not like some of them, agree with their politics or philosophies, or find some of their choices to arrive at what they considered their better selves to be right for you, but the sum of the stories does support the idea that having good character requires an understanding of what you've been given (not earned), a humility that comes from that understanding and a decision to focus on others more that yourself.  Although he did not say it this way, it helps to try to always be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

I liked the book and intend to go back and copy down some of the observations for future reflection.  They are that good.  As a side note, I learned about some historical characters I've heard of but only knew a sentence or two about them. In those cases, they made me want to learn more. In the case of St. Augustine, I read some of his writings and wish I could have just read Mr Brooks description and skipped the rest.  The book is not too long and well worth your time.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

There was a boy, youngest in a large family that lived on the edge in a poor territory of rural Australia, who loved reading.  That love earned him a scholarship away from home and the life that he knew.  Each achievement drew him further away to a life as a young surgeon moving in the upper echelons of pre-WWII society. He had a woman from that society who wanted to be his wife and, assuming he survived his officer assignment in the coming war, a promising future.

However, the rhythm of his life was not quite right.  He earned all that he had but felt he was not the person people thought he was.  He loved a woman full of life but unattainable and his fate eventually placed him in a slave labor camp with hundreds of other POWs building the rail line from the movie "Bridge On The River Kwai."  He and some of the others survived and returned to their old lives but were marked by the horrors of the camp.  These are the bare bones of the story of Dorrigi Evans and the people in his life.

This is a subtle, horrific, deftly layered and deeply moving story.  It is one of the most beautifully and skillfully written books I have ever encountered.  Life lived daily seems linear and fairly predictable. When viewed over time, it is beyond comprehension, with words like God, love, good and bad being too deep to fully grasp.  Mr. Flanagan does as good a job of tackling life in an engaging story as you are likely to find.  The book was awarded the Man Booker prize.  Beyond that, it transcends the category of being a good read to that of being a great book such as those described in literature classes as achieving the height of the art.  This review doesn't come close to what you will find in the book.  Over time you will find it indescribable.

Friday, March 13, 2015

11/22/63 (The CB Version) by Stephen King

I was never what would be considered a voracious reader, but by the time I got into high school I found that I enjoyed reading certain genres and authors. I found characters such as Holden Caulfield relateable and entertaining… minus the mental breakdown and psychotherapy, of course. And I found  that I was particularly drawn to sci-fi thrillers. Enter: Stephen King. 

A good, scary book was always an easy read and for years I read anything I could get my hands on my Stephen King. That being said, I read The Shining for the first time at 18 years old and didn’t touch another King book for  at least 6 months. That book made the movie look like a Disney cartoon.  

Over the years I made my way through a number of his classics, all better than the movie remakes, but I started to find his newer material a little more “out there”. Now, I understand that the man is out there to begin with, but he went from writing scary thrillers to drafting stories and plot lines that were just plain weird. I’ll give credit where credit is due: I became more of a reader because of King, but over time I branched out and found my nightstand littered with other authors. I felt that maybe Mr. King had spent a little bit too much time off the grid, up in Maine. Then, this past Christmas, my sister-in-law gave me 11/22/63. While I probably hadn’t read anything by him in almost ten years, I was excited to see if it would rekindle my appreciation for his ability or if he had ceased to be the same author. I was not disappointed.


He demonstrated what drew me to his work originally. He had recaptured the art of storytelling… the depth of characters both noble and repulsive, settings so vividly described they were tangible, and, most importantly, knowing how to tie up a seemingly impossible ending. In addition to all of these wonderful traits, the utterly make-believe story was woven together with plenty of historical accuracy. I not only enjoyed the break from reality that the story provided, but was fascinated by the history lesson I received in reading it. I understand that much of what was written was done so with creative license (much like the CB character that exists on a certain blog), but he did his homework and, in some regards, I learned more details about the life and times of Dallas in 1963 than I had from any history class or discussion I’ve had regarding President Kennedy’s assassination. The combination of factual events intertwined with a well crafted story about time travel made for one the most enjoyable books I’ve come across in a long time. 

Thank you, Mr. King. It’s good to have you back. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

After Dark by Haruki Murakami

Yes, it's another Murakami book on the blog. Since Becky and I both like him we keep at it but if you've read the other Murakami posts and read one of the books and it wasn't for you, go no further.  It's hard to describe this genre since it blends realistic relationships and situations with otherworldly dimensions.  Labels almost always artificially repell or attract so leaving him unlabeled is a good thing.  Find out for yourselves.

This 2004 short novel follows a handful of characters through one night from just before midnight until just around dawn in modern Tokyo.  We know this time span because each chapter has a clock showing us the time progression through the book and their lives.  There is a narrator who describes some scenes as if through a camera but we also learn about them in their dialogue and actions.  I found the narrator a bit jarring compared to most descriptive styles but it was an interesting change.

You get a sense in the book that we live in a relatively concrete existence as individuals during the day but we tend to blend into each other and into other dimensions late at night, especially as we sleep.  It's tough to tell if the nighttime blending effects the daytime individual but there may be a relationship.  In the hands of a less skilled author this could get dry and ham handed and more like a psychologist's lecture and less like a good story with hidden meanings, but Murakami is one of the best authors of our age and the style and story work for him. As is a must with me to recommend a book, I liked most of the characters and the glimpse into their varied lives. I hope you do too.

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.