Book Review: David and Goliath

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Courage is not something that you already have that makes you brave when the tough times start. Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through the tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all.

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, by Malcolm Gladwell

Ah, Malcolm Gladwell. It’s been a while. So far, I’ve read three of Gladwell’s books: The Tipping Point, Outliers, and Blink. I quite enjoyed The Tipping Point, which was the first of the three that I read. At the time, I hadn’t had much experience reading non-fiction for pleasure (and still don’t, to be perfectly honest. I think I’ll always prefer novels over non-fiction), and I was entranced by Gladwell’s detailed examples and his prose, which is easy to read and engaging without being too simplistic.

However, as I pursued more of Gladwell’s work, I found that while I enjoyed the writing itself, I couldn’t get on board with many of the concepts in the books. The examples used seemed biased and rather narrow from which to draw overarching conclusions about human behavior. The theses of the books seemed fairly obvious (for example, one of the ideas presented in David and Goliath is that experiencing a great difficulty in childhood, such as dyslexia or the death of  parent, makes us more likely to be successful. Not exactly groundbreaking.), and overly simplistic.

That’s how I expected to feel about David and Goliath, and that’s exactly what happened. As always, I enjoyed Gladwell’s writing and learning about a variety of different stories: the research work of oncologist Emil J. Freireich, who was deemed controversial by his peers, the origin of the three-strikes law in California, and even the titular story of David and Goliath itself, which I can actually say that I wasn’t too familiar with outside of its cliched use in everyday conversation. I don’t have much else to say about this book. I feel that my feelings toward this book are probably well-summarized in my reviews of Outliers and Blink.

For me, there was, however, one important takeaway from this book. I find that since I’ve graduated and begun working full-time, I sometimes feel complacent, and too caught up in my own rhythm and routine to consider change. In David and Goliath, Gladwell argues that those who dare to disagree with society’s rules – those who dare to lie, to cheat, and to argue with their colleagues over work they feel passionate about – often end up making new discoveries, creating timeless art, and even saving lives. It’s not a new lesson for me, but one that I needed to be reminded of. If you’re feeling in need of some inspiration, this may be the book for you.

YES OR NO?: I feel lukewarm about this book. In all honesty, if you’re familiar with Gladwell’s previous work, that would probably determine whether or not you enjoy David and Goliath. I ended up reading most of this in a two-hour session, which I think was information overload. I’d recommend taking this on a trip so the individual anecdotes have time to make some impact.

Book Review: Moonwalking with Einstein

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Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches.

Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer

While I love to read and add to this blog, my day job is to churn out technical documents at a software company. I mean, it involves more creativity and planning than it sounds: structuring content, researching new features, and figuring out how to reuse my existing content as efficiently as possible. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I certainly enjoy it. There are times when the technical aspect of my job overwhelms me, which can be distressing – I’m often surrounded by people who assume my technical knowledge is beyond what it actually is.

I was once bemoaning this to my boyfriend, especially the level of concentration it takes me to understand technical concepts, and how it makes me feel stupid at times. He then insisted that I wasn’t stupid at all, and pointed out my sense of memory as an example. It surprised me – I’m aware that I have a good memory (friends often count on me to remember where we had brunch that time, and I have an uncanny ability to recall which actors starred in which movies), but I’d never counted that as a form of intelligence. It’s just been a part of who I am for as long as I can remember. Faces, names, movie titles, state capitals. While I have a “naturally” good memory, I also am obsessed with keeping track of things: through my journaling, photographs, and of course, this blog.

I’ve been trying to read more non-fiction lately, and this book seemed like a good fit for me. Moonwalking with Einstein, despite its misleading and pseudo-catchy title, is about memory and memorization. The book covers the mental athletes who participate in the World Memory Championships (yes, that’s a thing) by memorizing as much information as possible in a given amount of time, scientific cases of people with impaired and extraordinary memories, and Joshua Foer’s own journey to becoming the American memory champion.

I found most of the ideas presented by the book fascinating, although the book itself tends to be repetitive. For example, one key tactic to becoming a memory champion is to attach as vulgar and/or ridiculous (and therefore memorable) images to whatever needs to be memorized. In my opinion, Foer spends an inordinate amount of time detailing these ludicrous images. After a while, I didn’t find them entertaining and they were just bothersome to read through. Also, while I understand that including Foer’s own mastery of memory techniques serves to prove that training one’s memory is an achievable goal for the average reader, I wasn’t too interested in the author’s journey. There were also times when his somewhat mocking attitude towards the mental athletes (and their lack of fashion sense, or other oddities) felt mean and unnecessarily judgmental.

Other than the memory techniques, I was most interested in the cases of extraordinary and impaired memories that Foer researched. He had the opportunity to speak with Kim Peek, the real life inspiration for Rain Man. I watched Rain Man while in elementary school, and I’d never known that Dustin Hoffman’s character had been inspired by a real person, so that was interesting to read about. The historical perspective on memory was interesting as well, to consider that memorization was generally considered a trainable and valuable skill rather than a meaningless exercise for students.

YES OR NO?: YES, with some reservations. There are times that Moonwalking with Einstein feels like an overly long New Yorker piece (with not quite the same quality of writing), but mostly, it’s an entertaining ride. I read this book in about five days, which I think is an ideal amount of time. There would definitely be some information overload if tackling it in one or two days.

Book Review: Nemesis

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It was impossible to believe that Alan was lying in that pale, plain pine box merely from having caught a summertime disease. That box from which you cannot force your way out. That box in which a twelve-year-old was twelve years old forever. The rest of us live and grow older by the day, but he remains twelve. Millions of years go by, and he is still twelve.

Nemesis, by Philip Roth

My friends and I are now in our mid-twenties and tackling our first jobs out of school, and (at least for me) confronting the nine to five lifestyle (well, for me, more like seven to three). At first, I was bored by the repetitiveness of each day, my habits and routines. However, I’ve learned to find comfort and a sense of productivity in my routines. Repetitiveness is a key factor in many feelings I strive towards on a daily basis: a sense of comfort, productivity, and stability.

That’s a roundabout way to segue into how I’ve enjoyed my routine of discovering new books at the library lately. In this case, I simply was attracted to the cover (a bright, tempting yellow). With a title like Nemesis, I expected a sci-fi title. Instead, Nemesis is the story of Bucky Cantor, a young man who’s been marked exempt from military duty during World War II. A new grad, Bucky becomes a playground director in his hometown, during a balmy summer where the local children are succumbing to a polio epidemic.

At 280 pages, this is a fairly short novel, and one I could see polishing off on a hot, lazy summer day (much like the ones Bucky spends playing baseball with his charges). When reading this, I had a similar feeling as to when I read Revolutionary Road or The Remains of the Day: a weird sense of nostalgia for a time before even my parents were born. We all long for a time that seems familiar, and I guess having read so many WWII and post-WWII novels makes this time feel familiar to me.

The novel’s plot, while dealing with an epidemic, is not the stuff a Hollywood blockbuster, and its philosophical bent can get a bit heavy-handed. It’s a quiet, introspective novel. I loved the thoughtful, detailed prose, and the characters–realistic in their personalities and their reactions to the events around them. Imagine my surprise when Philip Roth, a writer I’d never heard of before (shame on me), turned out to be a Pulitzer winner. It’s easy to see why. Nemesis is masterful in its insight on human behavior, and is thoroughly engaging while not resorting to any cheap tricks plot or dialogue-wise.

The medical nature of the spread of polio isn’t a huge focus in this book – or, rather, the focus is the characters’ lack of knowledge on how polio is spread, and their terror around it. There are several people in my life who suffered polio at a young age and now walk with a slight limp. For me, it was thought-provoking to glimpse a world where polio is regarded with such fear and mystery, and reminded me of my privilege to live in the circumstances that I do.

YES OR NO?: YES. Short and bittersweet, Nemesis features detailed, weighty prose, a thought-provoking plot, and realistic, relatable characters. I’m looking forward to reading Roth’s American Pastoral when I get a chance!

Book Review: The Sacrifice

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How alone this was going to be. How she’d been shunted into it as a farm-creature–cow, calf, hog–is shunted along a chute into the slaughter-house. Because the mother Ednetta Frye had requested a black police officer. A black woman police officer. Black had always seemed harsh to her. African-American was a preferable term. And there was Negro,  no longer fashionable. If she was anything, she was Hispanic. In crude mouths, spic. Yet among Hispanic Americans she was “too “white”–not just her appearance but also her way of speaking, her manner. Her life had been, since adolescence, an effort to overcome the crude perimeters of identity. Her skin-color, ethnic background, gender. I am so much more than the person you see. Give me a chance!

The Sacrifice, by Joyce Carol Oates

One of my reading goals for 2017 was to read more books by authors I hadn’t yet read from. So when I visited my local library and saw The Sacrifice prominently featured on a shelf, I decided to pick it up. Joyce Carol Oates is one of those names I’d heard countless times, but never really pursued.

The Sacrifice revolves around Sybilla Frye, a black teenager living in the fictional inner-city neighborhood of Red Rock in Pascayne, New Jersey, who is discovered hog-tied, beaten, and presumably raped, with racist slurs written in dog feces on her body. After a hospital visit during which Sybilla and her mother, Ednetta, refuse to have a rape kit administered, Sybilla claims that her abusers were white cops. For a while, little seems to change in the Fryes’ world, until Sybilla’s cause is adopted by Marus and Byron Mudrick, a reverend and attorney duo (who also happen to be twin brothers).

I was interested in this book for a number of reasons. For one thing, I learned that the plot of the book is based on the real-life case of Tawana Brawley, who was discovered in a similar state as Sybilla, accused white men of the crime, and was subsequently sued for defamation by one of her alleged assailants. In the past few years, as my interest in social justice has grown, I’ve followed (and been outraged by) many similar cases, so I was intrigued in the book’s discussion of rape culture and of race.

It’s intriguing when a book whose topic sounds fascinating ends up boring you. What didn’t I like about this book? Theoretically, I should have sympathized with all of the characters: with Sybilla and Ednetta, living under the abusive thumb of Ednetta’s common-law husband, Anis; with Officer Iglesias and Ada Furth, discriminated against by seemingly everyone for their race and their aspirations; even with Anis, whose abusive behavior is directly linked to his troubled background. Yet, for some reason, I felt nothing when I read this book. It was honestly difficult for me to finish, even though, at 309 pages, it isn’t exactly a long read.

I believe that had more time been given to develop the characters, the themes would have resonated more. The novel is told from the perspectives of different characters, including the ones mentioned above, spanning a wide range of races and ages. Yet I didn’t feel that I got to know any character beyond the surface. Each character was imbued with some kind of superficial motivation, but felt like little more than a stereotype. There were also some characters who were only described in passing. These characters were then used to evoke an emotional response from the reader later in the novel, which simply didn’t work. I could  not muster up an emotional response to a character I didn’t feel like I knew, let alone cared about. I wished the novel had focused more on the central characters of Sybilla, Ednetta, Anis, and perhaps even Ada, to delve into their reactions to the crazy happenings around them, but instead, there was a stronger focus on driving the plot forward, especially in the second half.

YES OR NO?: NO. Despite my interest in the subject matter, I found this book unengaging. To be honest, I felt more engaged when reading the Wikipedia page on the Tawana Brawley case than reading this fictionalization. I’m willing to try reading more of Oates’s work in the future, but this novel failed to capture my interest.