Monday, December 07, 2015

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

   Seems like most of my recent books have been histories of one sort or another.  Some are based on a lot of writing from the main characters to give an up-close look at what happened.  The better ones give context to understand why they felt and acted that way.  On occasion the author will really get into the characters and tell us what they were thinking and feeling, even if it's not supported by documentation.  And then there's this book.
   Cleopatra lived in the century just prior to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  She was not Egyptian in one sense because her ancestors descended from the family associated with Alexander the Great from modern day Greece.  That family, the Ptolomies, ruled for about 300 years and were as nasty a group of people as you'd want to meet.  This particular Cleopatra (there were six or seven, or not) was the last and most famous, what with plays, movies and a great deal of writing about here.  However, none of it is based on her writings or those most close to her.
   She lived in Alexandria most of the time.  It was famous for its light house, its massive library, and its great  beauty.  That's not today's Alexandria, because the old one drowned in the Mediterranean after a huge earthquake, to include the light house, the library, and most of the beautiful architecture.
   That left Ms. Schiff to rely on mostly Roman writing, which is unfortunate since those famous writers had axes to grind to remain in favor with whomever was in power at the time.  Think of trying to write about President Obama 2000 years from now if your only source was Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.  Make him a woman to boot and you're about there.
   The book ends up being a wonderful source for understanding the political currents of that century when Rome was coming out of a 400 year republic of a sort and moving into monarchies/ dictatorships.  However, Ms. Schiff fiercely defends Cleopatra to the point of distraction against probably unfair characterizations by the Roman writers and uses a whole lot of well-researched speculation about most everything that happened.  It's unavoidable, but tedious.
   Since I knew almost nothing about Cleopatra and what Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony had to do with it, as well as the dynamics of first century BC Rome, the book was worthwhile on those counts.  If you like most recent Pulitzer Prize-winning books, than you'll probably like this one.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol

What do you get when you mix a disgruntled teenager, a 90-year old ghost, and a murder mystery? A pretty great graphic novel, is what.

For almost a year, Katie has been reading graphic novels as quickly as I can drive them home from the library to her. I've flipped through a couple, but this is the first one I've finished. I can definitely see the appeal. It took me about an hour to read and I hurried up to finish before picking her up at the bus stop - I knew I wouldn't stand a chance once she got her hands on it.

Knowing she hadn't read it yet, I found myself wanting to censor the content or, maybe, not even give it to her in the first place. Some of the themes are above her current experiences - at least, I hope they are! There is smoking, underage drinking, and they use the word whore a couple times - mama cringe moment. But I'm glad I pushed past that instinct and finished the book because I realized the author had to take the story certain places to bring it back round to its beautiful ending. I trust my kid. I remember reading Judy Blume and feeling like she was the only one in the world who understood. Stories spoke to me as a child and I liked knowing I could read anything and explore topics on the pages that would be too scary to try out in real life.

I find myself thrilled my daughter is going to read this book (she started in the car for the five minute drive home.) It says things that every teenager (and tween) could stand to hear at least a hundred times. But it says it in a way that will be heard - not in parent-lecture form. Graphic novels like this weren't around when I was her age, but great stories were. Anya's Ghost would have made my young self happy - it makes my, ahem, older self pretty happy too.

Monday, November 09, 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

So, I know it's been a while since I've been on the blog.  That doesn't mean I haven't been reading, it just means I've been too lazy to blog about it. But now I finally have a book that I think a lot of other people will like, not just me. And in her defense, mom, who was the one who recommended it to me in the first place.

When mom and dad were down recently for a visit, I kept talking about The Haunting of Hill House (which I really should blog about because it's the only book I remember reading that made me squeal aloud in fear.) One of the things I really liked about that book was the unreliable narrator. It made the whole experience even creepier - I wasn't sure what was actually happening because the main character was all batsh*t and stuff.

The Girl on the Train is similar in that the main character isn't very reliable about telling her story - mostly because she doesn't remember large swaths of time when she blacks out due to her alcoholism. But she's likable and interesting and from the get-go I wanted to know what really happened to the missing woman that aforementioned "girl on the train" eye-stalked every day on her way to and from an imaginary job.

Another interesting device the author used (besides unreliable narration) was giving three characters a first-person voice and limiting their narration to "morning" and "evening" snapshots of their days. This made me feel like I, too, was on a train and sneaking salacious peeks at their lives like a creepy gawker. Very nice literary style.

Thanks for the great recommendation, mom! If anyone else out there likes a good mystery, check this one out. I'll be curious if you're able to figure out whodunit very far before the end of the book. What a fun ride!

Thursday, October 08, 2015

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

Last week, in "the Martian", we had a science fiction book based on science fact of a single man stranded on Mars and trying to stay alive.  In "In the Kingdom of Ice", there is a true story of a voyage in the 1880s to determine if there really was a warm water sea at the north pole that could be reached by breaching an outer barrier of ice further south.

If the second story seems more fiction than the first, you are in for a treat.  A portion of learnered men  in North America and Europe were convinced that the North Pole was an open sea year round, due to a number of theories such as tunnels from deep in the earth (maybe the earth was hollow) feeding warm air or water to the pole and warm currents in the Pacific and Atlantic shooting under the ice encountered as you sailed further north and resurfacing at the pole.  The same New York newspaper that had Stanley find Livingston in Africa decided to fund a Navy expedition into the polar ice cap to determine if the warm water pole theory was true.

The newspaper owner funded the whole thing, including buying the ship, giving it to the navy, funding the refit in a west coast navy yard and buying all the supplies.  The ship sailed north, eventually became trapped in the ice for two years and then sunk.  The crew dragged everything they could south trying for the coast of Russia.  The story was a world-wide sensation at the time and the captain and crew were honored as heros.

Everything in this book is well documented and the story is compelling.  The tale is interesting enough at the beginning and by the end, I stayed up late to get through the last 70 harrowing pages.  It's that good.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

A year ago one of the more tech-interested readers of our book club recommended this book.  It didn't make the voting cut but the book has become a best seller and a movie, so it was worth giving a try.

The author is a computer programmer and space fan who made a hobby of understanding how you could send a manned mission to Mars.  Once he was into it, he wondered how you would deal with some disaster there involving the crew.  It led to him posting a story for free on line of a single crew member being stranded and left for dead.  That got enough interest that he responded to reader requests to have a kindle version.  Now it's a best seller in kindle and regular print, much to the surprise of the author.  It's not your normal version of an author's start in the business.

Science fiction has all kinds of angles, but usually involves an imagining of a technology that doesn't exist today (warp drive or flying cars) but at its best still has humans acting as we know them today but dealing with a different context.  Because of Mr. Weir's extreme interest in the science, this story of a crew being the third to reach Mars, experiencing conditions requiring a quick evacuation with one of the crew apparently dying in the process, and that crewman surviving thereafter is as close to the known science of space travel as is available today.  It is both a strength and weakness of the book.

The story is a good one that moves right along.  You really like the stranded crewman and admire his ability to survive under extreme conditions.  There are no bad guys here, just people acting as you hope they would when faced with the terrible knowledge that a person is stranded alone far away with no immediate vision of how he can survive.  If you are interested in things technological, then the many descriptions of the science that allows him to move forward will make the story more believable.  If you are not interested, then the story still works, but you may skip a lot of the technical description.  Either way, it's a quick read and a good adventure story.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Elephant Company by Vici Constantine Croke

A Boston Globe blurb described this as "...blending biography, history and wildlife biology ... [in an] account of [Billy] Williams, who earned the sobriquet 'Elephant Bill' and his unusual bond with the largest land mammals on earth."

That's a good description of this interesting book, starting with a WWI veteran who went to Burma in 1920 to make his fortune.  He always had a strong attachment to animals and especially looked forward to the prospect of working with elephants.  The elephants were used to harvest teak in a reasonably sustainable fashion, which means clear cutting was not an option.  The various crews would take individual trees in a jungle setting, skid them using elephants to haul them through the jungle to dry creeks and river beds and wait for the monsoon rains to wash them down to areas where they could be rafted to saw mills.

The majority focus of the book is how strongly he bonded with these highly intelligent animals and how it eventually led to him using the elephants to rescue many people fleeing the Japanese takeover of Burma in WWII.  The book is at its best when describing the elephants, the environment, the actions of harvesting the teak and the interactions of the elephant handlers and the varied complex tasks the elephants accomplished.  The book also verged into what the elephants were thinking and feeling, especially in the presence of Billy Williams, and that may have been true, but went a bit overboard in attributing a sort of ESP between those involved.  Still, given some of the actions of the elephants, you can't really fault the author for ascribing almost mystical powers when describing these animals.

This is a very enjoyable story and a fun read.  Everyone in the family would like this book.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Just like the previous posting, reading this book was an attempt to have a fun read that's not too long at the end of Summer.  If you've read the other posts on the blog about Murakami stories, you might think this would be too complex or out of the mainstream for that kind of read.  That is not the case with this recent (Aug., 2014) addition to Mr. Murakami's varied selection of stories.

Tsukuru was a member of 5 students who were close friends in high school.  Their personalities meshed nicely and complemented the strengths and lesser abilities of each of the members to the point that they were almost one complete unit who continuously hung out together.  The four other members had names that can be interpreted to be a different color, while Tsukuru had no such association and was thus "colorless."  During his second year of college, the group suddenly shunned him for reasons Tsukuru could not understand and he became profoundly depressed and withdrawn.  Over the years he never forgot the relationship yet never contacted the members until events led him to get to the bottom of the mystery.

While there was little if any of Mr. Murakami's otherworldly parallel levels of existence or manipulation of events in this existence thru dreams and events in the other level, the story should still be very satisfying for Murakami fans and for the broader reading audience as well.  The story is told simply enough and yet it's resolution (to a degree) made for a touching tale and a beautiful look at the friendships of adolescence and how they do or do not linger into adulthood.  This is a very worthwhile read.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

After reading some long or mediocre books lately, I looked for something both good and not too long.  When reading a review of the latest in the "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" series, the reviewer mentioned other Swedish authors, including a duo that changed the genre with their 10 book series starting in the early '60s with Roseanna.

This is crime fiction at its best.  You have a taciturn detective with a varied and capable detective crew who solve crimes without DNA, massive gun battles, or 1000 yard rifle shots with pinpoint accuracy.  In this first story, they don't even know the name of the victim, her nationality, or where she was murdered.  All they know is she was found in the water by a lock being dredged to improve boat traffic.

Through diligent police work, the name appears, which leads to the boat, which leads onward to more understanding of events.  Each character is drawn well and believably, the crime makes some sense in the end, and requires no suspension of reality to make the plot work. The writing is sparse and clean.

Perhaps after reading at least 100 detective stories over the years, I've gotten a little PTSD from the trend towards escalating horrific crimes and those who solve them thru lucky outcomes.  This police procedural may seem a bit quaint, but it deserves to stand alongside the best of Ross McDonald, Raymond Chandler, James Lee Burke, and James Ellroy.  If you like a good mystery, this is a great read.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Wisdom of Psychopaths by Kevin Dutton

The long version of the book's title includes "...what saints, spies, and serial killers can teach us about success."  If the idea that saint's can be psychopaths is a jarring one, then it gets at what is both the illuminating and somewhat confusing aspect of the book.

Most of us, if we think of it at all, assume a psychopath is a serial killer-like individual.  If they don't kill people but have some of the traits, we might think of them as sociopaths.  This book takes all those who demonstrate enough common characteristics and calls them psychopaths, regardless if they kill people or even get caught breaking the law.  Think of it as a continuum, with a chunk of the individuals living next door in a house larger than yours, driving a BMW.  Once I got over the label and read the characteristics, I concluded I've worked for one and with several.  The Wall Street traders who helped launch the Great Recession probably have an inordinate percentage.

What drew me to the book was an NPR interview where the author spoke of brain scans and scientifically vetted measuring surveys that gave insight into what makes a psychopath.  The short answer is nature, nurture, and circumstances.  Sometimes, you want them making the decisions.  The various cited experts and the myriad of measuring devices became a little overwhelming for me, and some of the metrics left me skeptical, but on the whole it looks like the psychological community has a reasonable idea for measuring and describing the category.

What is a little tougher about the book's title is what it can teach the rest of us.  Some of the psychopathic qualities would be useful for the broader community, but attaining them requires a great deal of training and practice, where the psychopath comes by that quality naturally.  Still, understanding the advantage is good to know and may push a few readers into a serious regimen of extended meditation.  Even if that's not the case, it's an interesting read.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre

Any reader of spy history, especially the English agency MI6, has probably heard of Kim Philby.  Mr. Macintyre focuses on Philby's friendship with a close friend, Nicholas Elliott, to tell this story of almost unfathomable hubris on the part of the English spy community that allowed "one of their own" to operate as probably the most important Soviet spy ever.

In the '30's, the Soviet Union was envisioned within the elite English universities as the best hope of blunting the impact of Hitler on Europe and the world.  Communism was viewed as a viable governmental model, even as stories leaked out of the USSR of mass killings in the name of the people.  As the coming war loomed, the English intelligence community started recruiting likely candidates for intelligence work.  The vetting process mostly consisted of someone within MI6 knowing someone from college or family friends and asking if they wanted to do important work for the crown.  Open collegiate affiliation with Nazi-favorable organizations was far more likely to generate suspicion than similar affiliation with the Communist party.

In 1937, Kim Philby was a party member and, through university contacts, volunteered his services to the Soviet Union.  From that point forward, he was a loyal contributor to the Soviet cause until after retiring from spying decades later.  Since he rose to key positions within MI6, including the liaison with the CIA in the 1950's, he was able to inform the Soviets of every major effort to spy on the USSR from immediately after WWII into the 1960's, resulting in the deaths of probably 100s of agents and those who were innocent civilians who might have had an anti-Soviet leanings in post-war eastern Europe.  When Philby came under increased suspicion after two close friends defected, MI6 did everything in its power to protect Philby from various probes from the English equivalent of the FBI, MI5, and from U.S. inquiries, including the FBI.  When MI6 finally came to realize the allegations were probably true, it appears they let him defect rather than face an inquiry that would have brought discredit to MI6.

This is a fascinating account of an agency supposed to be one of the best in the world.  I found it depressing that the English class system had such a profound negative effect on decades of intelligence work.  This is a must read for followers of spy novels and intelligence history.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Swerve - How The World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

This book won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award and the book's title suggests a monumental story of the world's coming of age.  With those awards and that title, it's hard to begin a book like that without having great expectations. Those expectation were not met but it is a worthwhile and intersting read.

The story focuses on a Renaissance scribe who rises to the peak of his profession to become a key member of the papal nonsecular hierarchy.  One of the reasons for this rise is his excellent grasp of ancient Latin.  When he is no longer part of that heirarchy, he goes on a quest for rare pre-Christian books by famous Latin pagan thinkers.  He discovers a text that was alluded to by other writers and is so impressive that when it makes it into print in the post printing press era, it may have had a profound effect on the thinking of key scientists and philosophers for centuries to come.

The discovered text is "On The Nature of Things" by Lucretius.  It is a dense, two hundred plus page poem that within lies a strikingly modern view of the world and a condemnation of superstition. The story of its discovery and impact is a tough one to tell because the time of discovery was so complex and connecting the text to modern outcomes is so nebulous..  Mr. Greenblatt does a very good job of focusing on the scribe, Poggio Bracciolini, and using his life to give understanding to the 15th century and how rooted in the past most of Europe was at the time, due in great deal to control of the church.  Think being burned at the stake for saying the earth is not the center of the universe.  However, going back to the creation of "On The Nature of Things" and proceeding all the way to Thomas Jefferson, "The Swerve" contains a lot of connections that boil down to they might have read the book or they might have said this and that.  With the lack of actual descriptions by those historical figures that provide that connection, these multiple suppositions may be true but take away from what  is an excellent piece of history and a revelation of the thinking of ancient thinkers.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Erik Larson has been in the blog before and his latest tale about the last voyage of the Lusitania is a welcome addition to his growing list of accessable historical accounts.  As he has done before, he relates the overall tale by sharing the stories of different participants.

For those not familiar with the Lusitania, it was an English ocean liner in the mold of the Titanic and was torpedoed by a German submarine in WWI.  That event was one of the tipping points that brought the U.S. into the war on the side of England and France.  Prior to that the U.S. was neutral and there was a strong sentiment in the country to stay that way.  Unlike FDR's desire for the U.S. to enter WWII much earlier than we did, President Wilson tried to keep the U.S. out of the war.

Of the individuals in the book, the one's I found most interesting were the captains of both the Lusitania and the submarine, some of the passengers that both survived and parished, and the quiet dealings of the English government and military.  England knew the submarine was in the area, took steps to safeguard its naval vessels while providing confusing information to the steam ship line managment regardig the safest way for the Lusitania to proceed.  They also provided no escort at all for the ship, even though a number of destroyers were in the area.  A good case can be made that England would just as soon have a disaster like the sinking of the Lusitania to force the U.S. into the war and their actions and inactions were an effort to achieve that end.  Give it a read and decide for yourself.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

In A Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

Sometimes a book from my men's book club makes it into the blog and more times than not, it doesn't.  There's only so many times you can read about WWII and the Civil War (ours, not any other country's).  However, we have members who like a lighter read and their nomination sometimes makes it through the voting.  This is one of those, and I'm glad it made the cut.

Bill Bryson is a good and prolific writer.  Previously he generated a best seller on his walk over a large portion of the Appalachian Trail called "A Walk In The Woods".  He generated this book in time for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.  Over the span of multiple visits, he experienced all the major Australian cities and quite a few road houses throughout the country to give a humorous and reasonably factual look at this large country (about the size of the U.S. lower 48) with somewhat fewer people than live in Canada.

The result is a fun read that is worthwhile even if you never visit Australia.  Having gone there once and seen just a little of what he writes about, he captures the essence of the country nicely.  His description of their maddening little flys is just right.  His description of all the snakes, spiders, plants, aquatic animals and who knows what else that can kill you in an instant is right on target.  When Jackie and I visited a remote park with a sign of all the dangerous denizens within, we could encounter not only something called a Death Adder, but a different snake called a Common Death Adder. Somehow knowing something with death in the name is that common was a bit off-putting.  Bryson has many stories giving Australia its due as a country to be respected and admired, and you'll probably laugh out loud a number of times while reading them.  A good summer read.

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. 

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!