Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Japanese Lover

Title:  The Japanese Lover
Author:  Isabel Allende
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2015. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1501116975 / 978-1501116971

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "When Irina Bazili began working at Lark House in 2010, she was twenty-three years old but already had few illusions about life."

Favorite Quote:  "We start to grow old as soon as we are born, we change every day, life is a continuous state of flux. We evolve. The only difference is that now we are a little closer to death. What's so bad about that? Love and friendship do not age."

The Japanese Lover centers on two women even though the cover features one and the Japanese lover belongs to only one. Alma is a woman in her eighties in an assisted living senior facility; she is fiercely independent and protective of what she holds dear. Irina is in her twenties, working at the residential facility but held captive by her past. The book weaves past and present to tell both women's stories.

This book has a bit of everything thrown in. World War II. Internment camps. Child abuse. Pornography. Affairs. Elder care. Marriage of convenience. Relationships unacceptable to the social standards of the time. AIDS. Drugs. Abortion. I did not expect quite so many complications all in a historical fiction love story going from World War II to the present.

The biggest issue I have with the book is that I do not care for or really believe the main character. Alma uses the people around her; things are all about her. I never really get a sense of who the two men in her life - Nathaniel and Ichimei - really are. She seems to have two good men devoted to her, but she doesn't treat either one well. She professes undying love for one, yet is unwilling to make the compromises and sacrifices that entails. She takes advantage of her friendship with the other to achieve social and financial security. The entire premise of the book is on her love story spanning decades, but unfortunately I don't feel the love.

Nathaniel's story is told briefly towards the end of the book, and it could be a book all by itself. Instead, it becomes a footnote in Alma's story. It never develops but seems included as more a justification for her behavior towards him. The relationship works for him for his own reasons, but that does not really make me like Alma any more. It just is sad for him.

I don't find Ichimei's story to be present in the book much either. The reader sees him through Alma's and through his love letters sprinkled between chapters throughout the book. Here is a man with a story of immigration, of survival through internment, of poverty, of family obligations, and of this grand love that survives from childhood through the rest of his life. Yet, I feel as if I know nothing about him. How is his love story supposed to feel real if he does not?

Irina's story could also be a book all by itself, but it seems not to belong in Alma's story. Both are immigrants; both are orphans; and both have secrets in their past. However, their stories really have no overlap other than the fact that Irina works for Alma. It's like reading two separate stories. I don't see the correlation - real, symbolic, or otherwise.

Another issue I have with the book is the ending of Alma's story. My reaction is, "Really? That's where this is going? I read 300 pages for this end?" Let's just say the mix of elements introduced in the ending is just not for me. I don't really buy into Alma's story through the whole book, and the ending does not help matters.

Isabel Allende is an author that has long been on my "to read" list, but this is actually the first book I have read by her. I will perhaps try another for this one unfortunately is not for me.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

Title:  Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
Author:  Marjane Satrapi
Publication Information:  Pantheon. 2004 (US translation). 160 pages.
ISBN:  037571457X / 978-0375714573

Book Source:  I read this book based on many recommendations.

Opening Sentence:  "This is me when I was 10 years old."

Favorite Quote:  "Don't forget who you are and where you come from."

Persepolis is a memoir of a childhood interrupted by revolution. The book begins in 1980, which is a time of war and revolution in Iran. Marjane Satrapi is 11 years old, and her family are politically active and wealthy - a dangerous combination in a time of revolution.

The book is written as if through the eyes of that eleven year old and not the perspective of an adult looking back. This perspective makes for interesting contrasts throughout the book. Marji's experiences go between those naturally of a young child - friends, arguments, words said without thinking of their impact, and a certain self-absorption - and those of a child unnaturally forced to grow up too soon - with knowledge of fear and of death.  For example, at one moment, she has a child's request for posters and music as a gift. At a different moment, she contemplates the use of an iron as a torture device. This lens of a child's innocence placed on these events makes the events of the revolution even more stark and disturbing.

This history is made darker by economic battles over oil, fundamentalism, and terrorism in the modern history of the country. Conflicts have torn apart the country and created a destructive vision of this civilization around the world. This unfortunately is the legacy of Marj's childhood.

Underlying this darkness, however, is another heritage of a centuries old civilization rich in culture and a history that reaches far into the past. The title of the book is itself a reference to Iran's history. Persepolis, literally translated to "city of Persians," was at one time the capital of the Persian empire. Archaeologists have dated the earliest ruins of Persepolis to 513 B.C., more than 2500 years ago. Today, the ruins of the city itself are a UNESCO designated World Heritage site. Treasures from this famed city are highlights in the collections of museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Oriental Institute in Chicago, the British Museum in London, and the Louvre in Paris.

This rich heritage is also the legacy of Marjane Satrapi's Iran. Unfortunately, this heritage, for me, is what is missing from this book. The book focuses on the events of the revolution and the violence, hypocrisy, and destruction it brings. Having read it, I have a greater understanding of that piece of Iran's history, but I don't feel that I learn much about the country's culture and its people. That is what I was expecting for even the introduction to the book states, "Since then, this old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism. As an Iranian who has lived more than half of my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth. This is why writing Persepolis was so important to me."

Persepolis is the first memoir I have read that is also a graphic novel. Graphic novels are not a medium I read often. So, for me, the approach to telling the story is as unique as the story itself.  The black and white illustrations match the somber, dark events described. Some panels are black on white, and some are white of black. That combination and the use of the dark vs. light background on varying frames tells the story perhaps as much as the words do.

In the recent past and even today, the media captures and portrays an extremely negative image of this region. The book unfortunately feeds into that image rather than dispelling it with a picture of the people and culture that lie beyond the negativity. "I believe that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists." So says the introduction. I completely agree and wish the book portrayed more of the nation and culture beyond the revolution.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Friday, October 23, 2015

After You

Title:  After You
Author:  Jojo Moyes
Publication Information:  Viking, Penguin Random House. 2015. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0525426590 / 978-0525426592

Book Source:  I read this book as it is the sequel to Me Before You.

Opening Sentence:  "The big man at the end of the bar is sweating."

Favorite Quote:  "How long do you think it takes to get over someone dying? ... I'm not sure you ever do ... You learn to live with it, with them. Because they do stay with you, even if they're not living, breathing people anymore. It's not that same crushing grief you felt at first, the kind that swamps you ... It's just something you learn to accommodate. Like adapting around a hole."

Louisa Clark is back. The title After You pretty much tells you how Me Before You ends. This book is absolutely a sequel to the first book; the experience of this book will not be even close to the same if you have not read the first book. The emotions, connections, and even the inclusion of certain plot points relies on an understanding of Will and Louisa's story from Me Before You. My definite recommendation is to read the two in order.

The first book takes on the divisive issue of the right to die. This book takes on the issue of grief from so many different perspectives. First and foremost, it is Louisa's story Her six months with Will seem distant and surreal yet so present that she cannot move forward with life even though he has left her a mandate and the means to do so. Her grief swallows her entire life. Her fear of opening herself up to hurt like that again anchors her to her small, narrow life and closed off from new relationships and maybe even a new love.

Then, we have Lily and her grief for someone she never met, the losses of her own young life, and her image of what might have been. She is a teenager with memories of neglect and secrets. As a child, she acts out her emotions and looks for safety where ever even a remote chance of safety exists.

For Will's parents, grief takes completely different manifestations. One jumps headlong into a new life, and one retreats from the world as a whole. Yet, they both grapple with the the unimaginable loss of your only child and the accusations that you had a hand in that death.

For the members of Louisa's grief support group, grief exists for different reasons. For the loss of the love of your life. For the guilt of survival. For the betrayal that death can seem to be. For the guilt of things left undone and words left unspoken. In their own way, each adds to this picture of grief.

Louisa's journey, of course, is the anchor to the book. I enjoy her character more in this book that in Me Before You. Even though she still makes some questionable choices, I find her a stronger, more proactive character in her own life. In fact, I find all the characters more approachable and more rounded in this book as compared to the first, perhaps because the story goes beyond Will's one decision to all these individuals moving forward with their own unique lives.

The author manages to tell the story of grief with sensitivity and with humor - a reminder that even in death and despair, life and new beginnings flourish. Two side story lines - Louisa's parents and her boss - are at times laugh out loud funny. Although these two aspects of the story are not central to or even really needed for the main story, somehow they work in its context. The book takes you from laughter to sadness and back again - sort of like life itself.

After You works as a story for the same reason that Me Before You does. It makes you care about these characters. It makes me care enough that I read the entire book in one sitting.  Now I wonder, will there be a third installment?

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Brontë Plot

Title:  The Brontë Plot
Author:  Katherine Reay
Publication Information:  Thomas Nelson. 2015. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1401689752 / 978-1401689759

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Wednesday was Book Day."

Favorite Quote:  "... reading forms your opinions, your worldview, especially childhood reading, and anything that does that has an impact. So, call them friends, call some stories enemies if you want, but don't deny their influence."

It has "Brontë" in the title, books on the cover, and a bookseller in the description. I instantly want to read The Brontë Plot. Some of my favorite things all together in one book.

Lucy Alling, the main character works for an interior designer and sells rare books, but her methods are not always ethical. Her dishonesty is discovered by her special someone, James. Discord begins.

Then, she is employed by James' grandmother as a consultant to travel to England on a buying trip.  Lucy has just broken up with James, but his grandmother Helen has her own reasons for wanting Lucy on this trip. Awkwardness begins.

The buying trip is more a literary tour of England - Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Beatrix Potter and all the places that come to life in books of these and other classic authors. Fun begins.

All throughout, each character has their own hidden agendas. Lucy has the possible search for her father and all the issues she thinks reconnecting with him will resolve. Her boyfriend James bears the burden of family expectations and career choices. His grandmother Helen harbors secrets about her illness now and a secret from her faraway past. Lies, deceptions, and a search for a true identity begins.

This search means that the book at times sounds like a self-help guide set in a fictional story. Lessons about making choices, accepting people, understanding different viewpoints, and discovering who you are abound throughout the book. The refrain of going back to the past to move forward repeats throughout and holds true for more than one character in the book. The lessons are captured also through references to English literature.

The lessons are mostly valid; the book just never develops the depth to truly give life to the lessons and the characters in the book. A decades-old secret is put to rest in the meeting of a few minutes. The emotional effects of an abandonment seem to have no ramifications. The truth that dispels an illusion about a parent seems to have little emotional effect. Many of the connections between the characters seem stretched, and the self-reflection and growth seems to stay at the surface. The quick resolutions to the issues facing the characters fail to develop the emotions these events may trigger and as such, fail to draw me into their lives. As a result, the  story and the lessons don't ring true.

The book also poses the question, "Are we destined to repeat the mistakes of our fathers or is change possible?" In this case, the mistake is building a life on lies - little ones and big ones. The story does answer the question but a little too late and after many iterations of lies.  By then, annoyance with the Lucy for her lies has set in. Again, when change does come, it seems to happen completely and instantly, too much so to feel real.

My favorite part of the book is the literary references and descriptions. The Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey, the Brontë parsonage, the Lake District of Beatrix Potter, and the moor home to Wuthering Heights are some of the places described in this book. It saves the book for me and makes for lovely armchair traveling. For me, the trip, not the story, is by far the most appealing aspect of the book.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Lake House

Title:  The Lake House
Author:  Kate Morton
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2015. 512 pages.
ISBN:  1451649320 / 978-1451649321

Book Source:  I received this book through a publisher's giveaway free of cost in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Shelf Awareness.

Opening Sentence:  "The rain was heavy now and the hem of her dress was splattered with mud."

Favorite Quote:  "A person never forgets the landscape of their childhood."

Kate Morton specializes in secrets - layers upon layers of secrets that slowly peel back like the layers of an onion to ultimately reveal the heart of the story. She is also masterful at drawing a beautiful, mysterious setting around the secrets. This book is no different. At the heart of this book is Loeanneth, the at-one-time-lovely-but-now-empty-and-atmospheric Lake House.

The secrets of this book traverse from the early 1900s to 2003. Most center on the Edevane family, the owners of the Lake House. Stumbling upon and researching those secrets is police detective Sadie Sparrow. Yes, that is actually her name. Yes, she is a police detective with plenty of secrets and mysteries of her own.

She comes to Cornwall on leave from her job. The leave is forced because of her handling of a case. Secret #1. She is also troubled by a letter she carries around. Secret #2. She stumbles upon the Lake House and is immediately intrigued. A child - the youngest of the Edevane children - disappeared there years ago. The case was never resolved. Secret #3. This secret triggers the detective in her and gives her a focus away from her own troubles.

Sadie's own story continues as a sideline throughout the book and reaches a resolution by the end. However, secret #3 - What happened to Theo Edevane becomes the anchor of the book. Leading to it and stemming from it are a whole host of other secrets in the Edevane family closet. The narrative chases these other secrets, going from person to person and time period to time period. Some are predictable, and some are a complete surprise. Some are a key to what happened, and some just seem to add volume to the story.

The story is not chronological but episodic, gradually revealing pieces of different secrets that all come together in the end to answer the question of what happened to Theo. Sadie in 2003. Alice Edevane, Theo's sister and now prolific mystery writer, in 2003 and as a child in the 1930s. Eleanor and Anthony Edevane when the meet in the early 1900s and in the 1930s living in the Lake House. Eleanor as a child with her mother Constance. Constance in the Lake House in the 1930s. These perspectives and more. Round and round, the story goes, first plotting points and then connecting the dots to come together in the conclusion.

This formula has worked beautifully in other books by Kate Morton. This book, for me, has too many pieces in the puzzle. At times, I find myself flipping back to the chapter title to determine the time period and perspective of that section. At times, I find myself not engaged in any one character's secrets because the story keeps quickly moving between the different characters. At over 500 pages, the book takes a long time to reach a resolution. At the same time, the ending seems suddenly to wrap everything into a neat package. All the pieces seems to fit together a bit too suddenly and too conveniently.

The story and Kate Morton's writing still keep me reading, because I want to know how it ends and how all the mysteries resolve. I am still a Kate Morton fan and will still look for what she writes next. This one is just not a favorite.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Hours Count

Title:  The Hours Count
Author:  Jillian Cantor
Publication Information:  Riverhead Books. 2015. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1594633185 / 978-1594633188

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "On the night Ethel is supposed to die, the air is too heavy to breathe."

Favorite Quote:  "What surprises me most is the way the days sometimes feel so long and yet the years so short. It's all the hours in between that count."

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were American citizens accused of passing information about the atomic bomb to Russia. On June 19, 1953, they were executed for the crime of espionage - the only civilians ever executed for treason in the US. The left behind two young children. The fact of their guilt - particularly Ethel's - is discussed and disputed even today. Were they guilty? Was she guilty? Were they victims of Cold War fear mongering?

The author has a clear opinion. As the author's note states, "Through fiction, I wanted to reimagine Ethel as a person, a woman, the mother whom I pictured her to be. I can't definitively say what Ethel knew or what she didn't what she did or didn't do, but the more I learned about her and the case and the trial, the more I personally came to believe she didn't deserve to die the way she did."

Jillian Cantor sets up to tell the history of the Rosenbergs through the eyes of a fictional neighbor, Millie Stein. Ethel did have neighbors, but the life of Millie Stein and her friendship with Ethel are pure fiction. The fiction story really takes over the history in this book. This is Millie's story. The Rosenbergs are a part of it but through Millie's eyes and only as they relate to Millie's own life.

Mille and Ethel become friends when Millie Stein moves into an apartment building with her husband Ed and son David. Ed is a Russian immigrant, who comes to the land of opportunity but finds himself in the middle of the Cold War. David is a nonverbal child with special needs at a time in history where a child's special needs are attributed to a lack of caring from the mother. David does not have a diagnosis, but the descriptions indicate an autism spectrum disorder.

Millie is struggling - to manage her difficult husband, to care for her elderly mother and grandmother, to not compete with her sister who seems to have done everything right, and to provide her child an opportunity for growth and an independent life. The first half of the book focuses on Millie and her marriage and on David. The world of politics and allegiances exists but only on the periphery of Millie's life. Her focus is her little world and daily survival.

About half way through the book, the book takes a turn and becomes more of an fast-paced spy thriller. Investigations. Police. FBI. Arrests. Questioning. Secrets. Who to trust and who not to trust? However, we still only see the Rosenbergs story from a distance, through Millie's eyes. The focus remains Millie and the decisions she makes for her own life.

Ultimately, is the book successful in telling the Rosenbergs story? In a way, yes because I find myself doing research to learn more about the case. However, the Rosenbergs are really at the edges of this book. I actually feel that I don't know much about them, and that I am not really drawn into their plight. What I learn about them I learn based on the research I did not based on reading this book.

The book is much more successful in creating Millie's story. She is the one I care about throughout the book much more so than the Rosenbergs. Even before reading the end, I know what happens to the Rosenbergs. I focus on Millie and want to know what happens to her. Hers is the story that keeps me reading and that makes for good reading.

So, my recommendation is to read the book not for the history but for the fiction.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Slade House

Title: Slade House
Author:  David Mitchell
Publication Information:  Random House. 2015. 256 pages.
ISBN:  0812998685 / 978-081299868

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Shelf Awareness.

Opening Sentence:  "Whatever Mum's saying's drowned out by the grimy roar of the bus pulling away, revealing a pub called The Fox and the Hounds."

Favorite Quote:  "One simply cannot discuss this with those who voluntarily amputate their consciences." 

Norah and Jacob Graynor.
1979 - Rita Bishop and her son Nathan.
1988 - Detective Inspector Gordon Edmonds.
1997 - Sally Timms.
2006 - Freya Timms.
2015 - Iris Marinus-Levy.

Atemporals. Telepathy. Lacuna. Orison. Suasioning. Slade House.

Know what these mean? Know how they are connected? I didn't, either. But these are the characters, concepts, and place of the latest creation from the imagination of David Mitchell. It's difficult to write about this story without some kind of a spoiler, for the connections between these disparate times and characters is the key to the book. I will try though.

One thing I will say about the ending - Be warned, this book reaches an ending that seems to indicate that a sequel may emerge, and the cycle may continue. If such endings are not for you, consider yourself warned.

As with David Mitchell's books Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, Slade House constructs its story over different periods of times. Unlike the other two books, however, this book has a clear central story and a very clear connection from one section to the next.  Each section builds upon the one before to come to a dramatic, albeit unexpected, conclusion. This is also the only one of the books that, at one point, actually explains the back story and the chronology that lead to the events in the book. As such, it is easier to understand and follow than the other two, but it lacks the philosophical bent of the other two books.

This book also references, in passing, Crispin Hersey from The Bone Clocks. Other connections to the world of The Bone Clocks also come up throughout the story, particularly at the end. Knowing these connections is not necessary to following the story of Slade House, but I always love seeing cross-references in books, especially when I have read both books. It's like a secret hidden in the book. Given that the Slade House ending indicates a possible sequel, perhaps that book will be a crossover of both?

The story of Slade House is all fantasy reaching over into horror. Many of the characters, however, are present day, modern individuals, including a single mother, a child told to "act normal," a police officer, a college student, and a journalist. These characters interject a counterbalance to the oddity and horror that is Slade House. These seemingly real-life characters make this book much more approachable and much more possible than the rest of the book would appear. It makes it much easier to suspend disbelief and see where the story leads.

The shorter length of the book also makes this book immensely readable. The pace is very quick; I had trouble putting the book down. At one point, it seems that the sections are repeating a pattern, and I as the reader may know what comes next. Except that I was completely wrong. The plot takes a twist to an ending I did not see coming.

Despite the surprise ending, this book is much more of a straight line from beginning to end compared to other David Mitchell books I have read. I am not sure how I feel about the ending indicating more to come. Yet, at the same time, I cannot stop reading, waiting to see where his imagination takes me next.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Gray Lady of Long Branch

Title:  The Gray Lady of Long Branch
Author:  Maura Satchell
Publication Information:  Four Pillars Media Group. 2015. 284 pages.
ISBN:  0985709383 / 978-0985709389

Book Source:  I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I was built in the 1910s in the fashionable west end of Long Branch."

Favorite Quote:  "I guess that's how life is. Sometimes it's joyful, sometimes sad, and sometimes downright painful. The main thing is to keep the memories alive."

The Gray Lady of Long Branch is a house set on the New Jersey shore in the town of Long Branch. Inside its walls, life happens - life, death, and everything in between. The house here tells its story through the stories of its inhabitants from World War II to almost the present time.

The narrative reads as if seen from the perspective of the house. As such, the narrator becomes a character; it seems a warm, encompassing presence that seems to love and protect those who are within the walls of the home.

Named for a "branch" of the Shrewsbury River, Long Branch is a beach town, with many permanent residents but also many beach goers who come and stay for a short time. This is a key to this book for the Gray Lady is a vacation home not a permanent residence. So, the story becomes scenes through time as visitors come and go.  The owners of the house are John and Mary and their two children Emily and Vincent.

The book is sweet. The simple approach to the story telling does not make these moments more or less than what they are. It simply describes them. The different scenes cycle back to some of the same characters such that you see them at different points in their lives. The baby born in the house experiences her first love and later becomes a bride in the house. The flower children who stop at the house for a brief moment return with spouses and children. The rebellious child finds his anchor. The happily married couple grow together through the seasons of their lives. The book is about the small and the big moments of everyday life.

The different scenes do also make reference to the history of the times as it impacts the residents of the house - World War II, Woodstock, the death of Princess Diana, Y2K, 9/11, and other historical events. These reference, while not critical to the book, do help provide a frame of reference for time and place. Reflective of the time and place of the setting, the book also exhibits the prejudices - toward different races and towards women, for example - and the language of the times. These are off-putting to us today but were unfortunately the culture of that time.

Being set in a beach town, the ocean is a block away from the house, but it actually plays a small role in the story. The book really could be set anywhere. It has references to going and coming back from the beach and to a storm or two. Other than that, the house is the key aspect of the setting not its surroundings. Given the narrator, it's not surprising that the book focuses completely on what happens inside the walls of this house rather than the beautiful environment outside.

I enjoy the story for its simplicity and for its unvarnished sense of real life. Right up until the last few paragraphs of the book. The final paragraphs introduce a twist that I did not expect and one I find unnecessary. It takes the entire story in a completely different direction, and I find myself having to reset how I read the rest of the book. Without a spoiler, I will say I get the message of the final few paragraphs, but still feel them unnecessary to the book. With the message, the book ends with a judgement on decisions made. Without the message, the book is a simple, touching story of family and home.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing

Title:  Nonsense:  The Power of Not Knowing
Author:  Jamie Holmes
Publication Information:  Crown. 2015. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0385348371 / 978-0385348379

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "In 1996, London's City and Islington College organized a crash course in French for novices and below-average students."

Favorite Quote:  "In an increasing complex, unpredictable world, what matters most isn't IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. It's how we deal with what we don't understand."

The book begins with a couple of intriguing examples - a successful approach to teaching novices a new language and the approach used by undercover agents to bring war criminals to justice. The book goes on from these two examples to many, many more. The diversity of the examples included in the book speaks to the depth and breadth of the author's research:
  • the Nazi's and World War II
  • Invention of Mad Libs and its success is another example
  • Advertising campaign for Absolut Vodka
  • Children's TV show Kids Say the Darndest Things
  • Studies from major research universities
  • Earthquake in San Francisco
  • Shootout in Waco, Texas in 1993
  • Medical diagnoses
  • Fashion industry
What, you might ask, is the the underlying commonality between all these examples? All these situations involve uncertainty and the human response to that uncertainty. Each example looks at some aspect of how we as human see our world, how we make decisions in an uncertain environment, and the impact of ambiguity on our decisions.

The essential premise of the book is that humans look for certainty and to minimize ambiguity, particularly in times of stress.  As such, we often seen what we expect to see. The push of the book is that ambiguity is a key aspect of our world, and our ability to deal with it and embrace it is a key factor in our success.

The premise of the book is clear. The structure of the book, however, is more focused on the examples rather than this paradigm of ambiguity. In addition, some examples are quickly explained, and some go on for pages like a case study. It's unclear why some are more developed than other; perhaps, that is an indication of the depth to which the author researched that particular example.

For me, the book would benefit from editing of the examples. To some extent, this book suffers somewhat with its basis around the examples rather than the overall theme of ambiguity. The focus should be on the theory being presented with the examples as support, not the other way around.

One surprising aspect of this book is its length and what comprises its length. The book is over 300 pages long. That implies a certain depth. Imagine the surprise then, when the text ends at a little over 200 pages. The remainder is primarily notes. I appreciate the author's attention to detail to include such detailed notes, but almost 100 pages of notes (with a few pages for acknowledgements and the index) for what is essentially a little over a 200 page book seems too much.

The premise of the book is clear. The examples are interesting. The book is easily and quickly read. The research is well documented and attributed. In other words, the individuals parts of the book are well done. Yet, somehow, the whole book in this case, for me, ends up less than the sum of its parts. It seems to be missing an overreaching structure to ground it. This book seems more a review of literature dealing with the topic of ambiguity rather than adding any new research or any deep analysis of existing research. Perhaps, that is the intent of the book; it is just less than I expected.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

A Walk in the Woods

Title:  A Walk in the Woods
Author:  Bill Bryson
Publication Information:  Seal Books. 1998 (original). 2015 (movie tie-in edition). 416 pages.
ISBN:  1400026717 / 978-1400026715

Book Source:  I received this book through a publisher's giveaway free of cost in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Blogging for Books.

Opening Sentence:  "Not long after I moved with my family to a small town in New Hampshire I happened upon a path that vanished into a wood on the edge of town."

Favorite Quote:  "In America, alas, beauty has become something you drive to, and nature an either/or proposition - either you ruthlessly subjugate it ... or you deify it, treat it as something holy and remote, a thing apart ... Seldom would it occur to anyone on either side that people and nature could coexist to their mutual benefit..."

Two older curmudgeonly men, who have not seen each other in years, decide to go for a walk. Not just any walk, but a trek to hike the Appalachian Trail. Why? Because they can. Bill Bryson is the instigator. In moving to New Hampshire, his interest is piqued in the proximity of the Appalachian Trail. He decides to hike it. It'll be something to do. It'll get him moving and active again. Ultimately why ... because, well, why not?

He now needs a partner. He tries amongst his friends and family, and gets no interest or inclination except for one person. The only person interested is Stephen Katz. Katz and Bryson grew up together and were even traveling companions on a European adventure. However, at this point, they have seen each other a handful of times in the twenty five years that have come before. "We had remained friends in a kind of theoretical sense."

So, now, you have a man who has never attempted such a trek setting out to hike the Appalachian Trail. You have him deciding to go on this adventure with a man he has barely seen in years, a man who may or may not be in any physical condition to undertake this quest. You have, of course, the many wonders and dangers of the almost 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail. You have the people (dare I say characters?) they meet along the way. This becomes the setup for this book of comedic adventure and history.

A large part of this book is a history and naturalist lesson into the Appalachian Trail. This aspect ranges in scale from the grand beauty of the trail to descriptions of the smallest of creatures like the salamander and the fresh-water mussels. The facts are interesting although the tone at times is a little didactic. The descriptions are just that; they don't necessarily inspire a feeling of witnessing these things on the trail alongside these men. Alongside the descriptions is a clear condemnation of things that may be slowly destroying this natural habitat and its inhabitants. "The National Park Service actually has something of a tradition of making things extinct." Statements such as these clearly express the author's opinions and focus on a need for change.

The other part of this book is the interaction between the two men, the people the meet, and a running commentary on anything and everything. From this perspective, the tone of the book is at times funny and at times a little-self serving and unkind. Poking fun at oneself can be funny for we all see a lit bit of ourselves in that humor. We can relate, and it is healthy to be able to laugh at yourself. I find poking fun at others - especially one person at a time - less funny and, often times, not funny at all. It depends on the context and the perceived tone. For this book, this does not work for me.

This book is part travelogue, part comedy, and part monologue. It is at times informative, at times unkind, and at times funny. It is a personal journey, a social commentary, and a call to action. Overall, my reaction is as diverse as the book itself. Parts I could skip over and parts I really enjoyed.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.