Night

Night is one of those books that I talked about a couple of weeks ago as having finished reading, but not posted a review for.  If you’re curious, the other two books are Dawn and Day, also by Elie Wiesel.  I first heard of these from the podcast Do I Dare To Eat A Peach, and I thought the book sounded interesting.  And being myself, that led to me buying all three books once I found out that it was a trilogy.  Although I really should say that it’s considered a trilogy, because the three books aren’t connected by anything other than the themes and ideas that they deal with.

Book StatsNight

120 pages

Non-Fiction, Drama

Thoughts

I’m cutting right to the chase here.  This is a book where the author talks about his early childhood which ended very abruptly when he was sent to a concentration camp in Germany.  And as such it’s not the easiest book to read, but at the same time, the language keeps it from being as powerful as I think it could have been.  Wiesel uses very simple language (at least the translation that I read had very simple language), and it comes across as bland.  If you compare this to The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, they’re written at very similar levels of language, but this book doesn’t do nearly as good of a job in the description.  In O’Brien’s book, it really feels like he took the time to find the perfect word, and it led to very simple, but beautiful writing.  In this book, the simple language feels like it was the first thing that was written down, and there was never anything done to make it seem like it was anything more.

But while I thought that the writing was bland, it’s obvious that there is a lot more to a book than just the individual words on the page, and while the tale told in this book is an important one, it was far less effective than it could have been because of a previous experience in my life.  For my Cross-Cultural Psychology class in college, we had an assignment where we had to experience something about another culture.  For one of my places to visit for that class, I went to the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.  I enjoyed my time there, learned a lot and did well on the project.  But of all the things that I saw in the museum, there is one thing that stuck with me more than anything else.  In a side room where they had articles from the Holocaust, they had a short looping video that showed some people who had been in the concentration camps.  I say people out of respect, because in the video they looked more like slaughtered pig carcasses waiting to be butchered further.  They say that pictures are worth a thousand words, and that image is one that will stick with me for a long time.

This is an important book, simply because it takes the time to discuss a topic that should never be forgotten, but if I’m going to look strictly at the quality of the book, I have to say that I wasn’t terribly impressed with the level of the writing.

Overall Grade

A unique perspective on one of the worst parts of human history, but the overall quality is dragged down by the poor level of writing.

5/10

Advertisements

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

This is a really interesting book by Scott Adams, who is mostly known for being the creator of Dilbert.  I’m a big fan of the Dilbert comics, and I’ve read several of Adams non-fiction books before, and this one was a lot of fun.  I think that Adams style of writing is very entertaining, humorous without always going for the easiest jokes, and very informative.  I’m not going to talk about everything that he writes about in the book, but I am going to give some of my general thoughts.

Book StatsHow to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

231 pages

Non-Fiction, Psychology

Thoughts

This book is one part humor, one part biography, and one part self-help book.  If that makes it sound like something fairly boring, well, you’re probably not familiar with Adams work, because I read this book in about 2 days and loved every minute of it.  I was familiar with some of the topics that he discussed in this book from reading one of his previous books – Stick to Drawing Comics Monkey Brain! – but it was still interesting to read them again.

Adams has had an interesting life, one that went from being a kid growing up in the semi-rural northeastern part of the country, to failing in multiple jobs out in California, to being a well known cartoonist, author, and public speaker.  He’s also overcome some potentially debilitating things throughout his life, most notably Spasmodic Dysphonia, and if you’ve never heard of that condition, don’t be too worried, you could probably ask everyone you know about the condition and nobody else will have heard of it either.

Throughout the entirety of the book Adams discusses a process that he has used throughout his life to try and find success.  The basic idea is that instead of trying to set a goal for what you want, set up a system that will help you reach a goal.  It’s a subtle difference, but it is there.  He also describes how it can be used for anything from trying to lose weight, to becoming successful in a new job, to being more popular with other people.

There are a couple of things in my life I want to change, and what reading this book has done is giving me a couple of different ideas for how to go about creating those changes.  Thinking about it in hindsight, I had already started to do a couple of those things, but I’m going to continue to work on more in the future, and maybe in 6 or 8 months I’ll do a post updating what I was thinking about doing and seeing how well the results work out.

I already said that I’m a big fan of Adams work, so it shouldn’t com as any surprise that I enjoyed this book.  If you’re looking to try and improve anything in your life, this book might give you a few ideas for what you can change, and at the very least, it’ll give you a few hours of entertainment.

Overall Grade

An interesting book that provides a very different way of looking at life, I really enjoyed it.

10/10

David and Goliath

David and Goliath is the biblical story of a young man who is able to defeat an awe inspiring warrior in single combat despite seemingly having no chance, it’s the story of the greatest upset of all time.

Or is it?

That’s the question that Malcolm Gladwell raises in his most recent book, titled David and Goliath.  Similar to the rest of his books, Gladwell uses psychological research and anecdotal stories to explain exactly what happened with many upsets throughout history.

Book StatsDavid and Goliath

275 pages

Non-Fiction

Enjoyment

This book is very similar to Gladwell’s other books in that it will force you to change the way that you think about some things.  The basic premise of this book is about underdogs and how they can defeat those who are greatly favored above them, but overall I’d say that the central point of the book is how many times what we think of as advantages can often be disadvantages, and vice versa.

Starting with the titular story, look at the battle of David vs Goliath.  In the story, Goliath is described as a huge man who is heavily clad in armor and carrying multiple heavy weapons.  In comparison, David is a young boy wearing very light clothing who is going to fight Goliath with a sling.  Obviously Goliath should be favored, except he shouldn’t be.

Gladwell discusses what a sling actually was in biblical times, it was a weapon used to fire a rock at another person from a distance, and according to some modern day research, a person well trained and accustomed to using a sling as a weapon can be deadly accurate from from a range of up to 200 yards.

So in the battle, you have a slow, but very powerful close range fighter, and an attacker who has less defense, but more maneuverability and a greater range.  Goliath was expecting a fighter similar to him to fight, but instead he was up against a ranged attacker that he had no chance of beating, because he was dead before David was anywhere near close enough to strike him.

This book is entirely about changing the way you look at the world, how can an underdog beat a goliath?  By playing a different game.  There are always ways in life to turn a disadvantage to an advantage, and if you take the time to carefully analyze the situation, you’ll see ways it could be done.

I enjoyed the book, but I don’t think that it’s Gladwell’s best effort (The Tipping Point is probably still his best book).  All of the ideas were solid and backed up with research (that he cites all of, so if you wanted to you could easily follow his steps and check up on anything you don’t agree with), and he shows a variety of different examples to make his point.  My biggest qualm with the book is that to me the last section didn’t tie in very well with the first two.  It was still interesting, and definitely worth reading, but it felt a little out of place for me.

Overall Grade

Another solid book by Gladwell that really makes you analyze some things that we take for granted every day.

9/10

The Hero With A Thousand Faces

So a couple of days ago I put up a short post about how I was partially through Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  Well, today I finished the book, and there’s a lot to talk about with it, so I’m just going to get on with my discussion.

Book Stats

337 pages (plus about 80 pages of notes and citations)

Non-Fiction

Thoughts

My first thought is what ultimately led me to want to read this book.  I’d heard about it on many different occasions from listening to or reading a variety of different things where people have discussed writing.  One of the most common things to come up in the idea of storytelling (and mythology) is The Hero’s Journey as outlined by Joseph Campbell in this book.  The basic premise can be broken down any number of ways, but I’m going to outline it very briefly.

  • The hero receives a call to adventure
  • The hero passes an early trial often with the assistance of another person (or god)
  • The hero travels from the known world to the unknown world
  • The hero accomplishes their goal (defeating a monster, or rescuing someone from said monster), again, often with divine assistance
  • The hero returns to the known world to share their newfound knowledge or power with the rest of society

That’s a very simplistic breakdown of the Hero’s Journey, but it has many of the pivotal points included.  If you look at nearly any story (be it mythological or simply fictional) you’ll find that this is a very common series of events for the hero to go through.

One of the most well known examples of the Hero’s Journey in modern times is of course Star Wars.  Lucas was very deeply immersed in Campbell’s ideas (I believe that he personally knew Campbell, but don’t quote me on that) and used them to shape the story in star wars.  I’ve heard some discussion about how effective this is as a method of constructing a story, but I’m not going to get into that here.

Getting back to the actual book, there are issues with it if you’re a casual reader.  The first is that the book was not written to be read casually, this is an academic text, and it shows.  There are some large sections where the book was a difficult read, and even with the easier sections I found that the best way to read this book was to read 10-15 pages, then go do something else for a while, then come back and read another 10-15 pages (which is part of the reason that it took me a week to get through the book).

Another issue that I have with the book is that it’s a little dated at this point.  The original edition was copyright 1949 and a very large part of the discussion is based directly around Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis.  This is a large part of why the book is difficult to read.  I have some familiarity with Freud’s ideas (as we discussed them in nearly every Psychology class I took) but I don’t have a deep understanding of them because for the most part Freud was wrong about nearly everything.  Freud was absolutely vital in getting the ball rolling on psychological research, but his theories were based almost entirely upon his own life and he had no empirical evidence to back them up.

The second section deals with more of the common aspects of the worldview of mythology as opposed to the hero’s actions and motivations and as a result is a much easier (and in many ways more interesting) read.  It’s interesting to see just how common most of the ideas that occur in mythology and religion from around the world really are.

So what’s the verdict on the book?  It’s easily one of the most influential books of the 20th century because it inspired so many different stories.  But while it’s important, it’s not something that I would suggest for a casual read.  If you’re a writer interested in the Hero’s Journey, there are various other places where you can find all sorts of information about the stages of the Hero’s Journey that are much easier to get through than this book.

Overall Grade

A monumentally important book that I would never suggest as a casual read.

6/10

The Devil in the White City

I think the first time I heard about this book was when my wonderful Greek Myth teacher mentioned it one day in class.  So when I saw the book while wandering around Barnes & Noble a while ago, I decided to buy it.  Along with having it mentioned by a teacher who’s opinion I highly respect with regards to books (I’ve read several other books on her recommendations and enjoyed them all), the title of the book is something that is definitely going to get you to at least look at it.  On with the review.

Book Stats

390 pages (after that there were another 50 pages of notes and indexes)

Non-Fiction

Enjoyment

The way the book is described by the blurb on the back cover is as a story that revolves around the story of two very different men who lived during a seminal time in the history of Chicago and this country as a whole.  The two people who form the basis of this book are Daniel Burnham, who was one of the central architects of the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, and H. H. Holmes, one of the first and most notorious serial killers in American history.

While that’s how the book is sold, upon reading it I saw it as coming across a little differently.  Most of the book focused on Burnham and the World’s Fair.  Strewn in throughout the book are mentions of Holmes and his actions, in large part because he was living in Chicago during the time of the World’s Fair.  Ultimately though, Holmes was active before, during, and after the World’s Fair.  Here’s what I think really happened when Larson was writing this book.  He was interested in writing about the World’s Fair – and justifiably so, there was a lot of interesting information in the book about the World’s Fair – but he needed something to help sell the book.  During the course of his research he found out about Holmes, and decided to include information about him in the book.

So really, the two people whose stories form the basis for this novel come across more as a marketing decision than anything else.  A book about the World’s Fair could be interesting, but it’s not going to sell as much as a book about a serial killer.  Whatever your thoughts about what this means about our society, the truth is that violence sells more than engineering, architecture, and landscaping.

So now that we have my thoughts on how the book came to be in its current form, lets talk about how the book works out.  There is a lot of good information in the book, and Larson works hard to craft an interesting story, but it feels like too much of a train wreck for me.  The title of a book is the first promise that the author makes to the readers, and after finishing the book, I feel lied to.  The decision to focus more on Holmes for the marketing worked well enough to get me to buy the book, but it wasn’t enough to keep me thrilled for the duration of the book.

In the end, this was a very well written book about the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.  But if you’re looking into this book for information about Holmes, I’m sure there are other books that focus much more on his story rather than other events of the time he was living.

Overall Grade

A well written book, but it wasn’t the book I wanted to read.  If you’re interested in architectural and engineering history this would be an interesting book, if you’re interested in the life of one of America’s first serial killers, you can probably look elsewhere.

5/10

Moonwalking with Einstein

Not many people know that Einstein actually invented moonwalking, most people assume it was Michael Jackson – but I digress.

Ok, this is the title of a book by Joshua Foer where the author chronicles his experience with the US and eventually the World Memory Championships.  It’s really interesting to see pop-psychology books like this when they come up, and it’s wonderful when they’re written well enough to appeal to a larger audience than simply psychology nerds such as myself.

Book Stats

271 pages

Non-fiction

Enjoyment

The book starts with Foer as a young journalist who is looking into the US Memory Championships, while there, he meets a couple of international competitors who are observing the contest and develops an interest in the methods they use.  The overarching ‘story’ running through the book is about Foer practicing and then ultimately competing in (and winning) the US contest.  But while he’s describing this, he goes into a lot of the history and research behind the idea of memory, and how we can use mnemonic devices to help increase our memory.  (Pickled garlic, cottage cheese, smoked salmon, six bottles of white wine, and three pairs of socks.  Yes, it makes perfect sense in the context of the book.)

The basis for how memory is improved by the competitors is to use mnemonic devices and to visualize what you’re talking about by placing the objects you need in a ‘mental palace’ so that you can remember it later.  The list in parenthesis from the previous paragraph is one that he discusses in the book, and he encourages you to try and remember it by placing the objects in your ‘mental palace.’  In my case as I was reading along, the pickled garlic was at the end of my driveway, the cottage cheese at the steps leading up to my front porch, the smoked salmon was hanging from the cat tree just to my left after walking in the front door, the wine bottles are stopping the cat from eating the salmon, and the three pairs of socks are hanging on the railing next to the steps leading to the second floor of my house.  I actually missed a really good opportunity to use the mailbox just outside the front door, but my example shows basically how the process works.

The book also deals with the history of mnemonics, education in schools, the business of selling memory improving techniques, and the plateau that many people reach when dealing with any subject.

The chapter about the OK Plateau is arguably the single most important chapter in the book.  In this chapter Foer discusses a time when he was having difficulty in improving his speed in memorizing a deck of cards.  His coach in the memory competition told him that to improve he needed to stretch himself and to try and memorize the deck even faster than he was, so that he was able to find out where he was making his mistakes.  The main point of this chapter is something that I’ve come across a couple of times online, and it’s one of the first points that I make to people when I coach them bowling.  There is a difference between simply performing at the level that you’re accustomed to and good focused practice.

Most people when they say they’re going to go practice are simply bowling, they bowl a regular game, and take the results they get.  But then they wonder why they aren’t getting any better, why they keep missing 10-pins, and it’s because their “practice” isn’t focused, it’s just a general performance.

There is a lot of interesting information in this book, and Foer is a very capable writer who is able to give you the information so that you’re able to understand it without choking on it.  He also includes a lot of psychological research and a lot of anecdotes – from his own experience as well as that of others – to emphasize his point.  The best compliment I can give for this book is that his writing style is very similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s, and Gladwell is arguably the best non-fiction author of the past 10 years or so.

Overall Grade

There is a lot of depth and a lot of research in this book, but you’re never bogged down by it.  Foer is an excellent writer and I look forward to reading more from him in the future.

10/10

Superfreakonomics

Superfreakonomics, the follow up to the original Freakonomics, by Stephen D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner.  I really enjoyed Freakonomics, and while this book was interesting, it just wasn’t quite as good to me, I enjoyed the topics in this book, but the writing didn’t seem to be at the same level that it was in the first book.

Some of the topics in this book include the economic incentive for a woman to become a prostitute, several studies dealing with human apathy and altruism, and global warming.  There is also quite a bit of discussion about the law of unintended consequences, and a large chapter dealing with global warming and possible ways to fix it.

The best part of the book deals with Intellectual Ventures, a company of geniuses operating from the Seattle area.  The company was founded by a former member of Microsoft (and is funded in part by Bill Gates) and their goal is to try to find solutions to real world problems.  The solutions are so simple, so effective, and so cheap that they couldn’t possibly work, except the science proves that they do.

Two of the problems that they deal with are hurricanes and global warming.  For both of these problems, which are very costly and deadly to many people, IV has scientifically supported ways to solve them that are not only brilliant, but relatively cheap.  For example, their hurricane defense system only cost something like $250 million per year for 3 of the most hurricane prone areas in the world.  While $250 million per year seems like a lot of money, keep in mind that the average cost of hurricane damage just in the US is roughly $10 billion a year.

All said, the book had some interesting ideas, and interesting research to go with those ideas. While this book isn’t as good as the original, it’s still a fun read.  Also, I still say that there is no reason that this book is considered an economics book other than the fact that Levitt has a degree in Economics.  This book is a Social Psychology book, and a good one at that.

Overall Grade

A fun read, but it doesn’t measure up to the original Freakonomics.

8/10

Freakonomics

Freakonomics, a book by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.  I heard about this book a while ago (from the Writing Excuses podcast) and it sounded interesting, so I checked it out.  (Note, I’m a nerd, and I think nerdy stuff like this is really interesting.)

First off, I loved the book, but I had a huge problem with the title.  Freakonomics makes you think that this is a book about Economics, it isn’t.  I’ve also seen it listed as a Business book, it isn’t.  The subtitle for the book is “a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything.”  The reason that he’s considered a “rogue” economist is because he’s really doing work that falls more into Social Psychology.  This book uses different terms obviously but it would work wonderfully as a textbook for a section of a 300 level college course in Social Psychology.  Which is probably why I enjoyed it so much.  So my category for this book for it’s listing is going to be psychology, where it will fit in my bookshelf wonderfully beside Malcolm Gladwell’s books.

Being a Psychology major, I’ve read quite a few of the “pop-psychology” books that have come out in recent years, Gladwell’s work, Snoop, Think, Mistakes Were Made, and a couple of others, and this book belongs with all of those.  This is actually one of the few books written by a serious researcher in the field that is very consumable by the general public (while Gladwell is a brilliant writer, he isn’t doing the research, Levitt is).  The reason it works is because of their collaboration.  Levitt is doing the research, Dubner is translating it into terms we can all understand, combined their writing on this topic is on the same level as Gladwell’s, which is something I never really thought I’d say.

The topics in this book are listed as odd questions that most people would never really think to ask (which is where Levitt is a genius, he asks the questions).  The first chapter deals with the question “what do school teachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?”  The answer, they both cheat, a lot, and have very good reasons for doing it.  The second chapter is the question “how is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real-estate agents?”  To which the answer of course is that they both relied on an information imbalance to put themselves in the best possible situations.  The last chapter that I’ll discuss here is chapter 4, which asks “where have all the criminals gone?”  This chapter deals with the very different idea that legalizing abortions in the 1970’s led to a decrease in overall crime 20 years later in the 1990’s.

Everything that they talk about in this book is backed up by numbers, and as they say in the book, numbers don’t lie.  The book was a very interesting read and dealt with a lot of stuff that I never really thought about before, and some things that I had wondered about before (chapter 6 which deals with names of children and the divide between “white” names and “black” names and how it can affect the child later in life).

If I were to give any criticism about the book it would be that it isn’t really focused on a single area of study, in this way it’s really more like What the Dog Saw than Blink (both Gladwell books, What the Dog Saw was a collection of articles he had written for The New Yorker, Blink dealt with a single subject).

Either way, the book is a fun, quick read that I’m glad I picked up.

Overall Grade

A very well written book that you don’t need a PhD to understand, even if the author has one.

10/10

Outliers: The Story of Success

I wrote in my review of What the Dog Saw that Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favorite non-fiction writers and probably the best non-fiction writers I’ve ever read.  This book further shows why Gladwell is the best person writing non-fiction in the world.

Outliers is another full book by Gladwell focusing on one subject.  While the subtitle of the book is The Story of Success, this is a fairly minor point as it pertains to the book as a whole.  The early parts of the book deal with several very successful people throughout the world.  It begins by discussing hockey and soccer players and some of the factors that may lead to their success in their field.  While we may originally think that these people may have natural talent, or maybe they just worked harder, Gladwell looks at something that most people never think about, when they were born.

Psychology studies have shown that for many athletes, the date for the age cutoff has a large effect on which people succeed in that sport.  For example, in Canada the cutoff date for joining youth hockey is January 1, you have to be 10 years old by that date to join.  The child who turns 10 on January 2 has another year before he is able to join.  While 11 months of growth might not be much when you’re in your 20’s, when you’re 10 those 11 months are a huge difference.

This is just one example where Gladwell shows that the situation that you find yourself in has a larger effect on your success than anyone ever thinks about.  He uses different examples relating to the time of the year athlete’s were born, the era that different lawyers were born, how your culture can affect the way you relate to superiors, and other fun topics.

I have a BA in Psychology, and I’ve heard of several of the studies that Gladwell uses to support his arguments throughout the book.  Gladwell’s gift is to write about complicated scientific and psychological topics in a way that makes them easy to understand.  He also focuses on the individual people within the stories that he talks about and makes you appreciate their stories.

Gladwell is a wonderful writer who focuses on topics that most people never consider, his books are all wonderful and I suggest them to anyone who ever wants to know more about how the world works.

10/10

The Black Swan

The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  To begin with, this is an incomplete review of the book.  I have the second edition of the book, to which Taleb added a new section “On Robustness & Fragility.”  I will eventually read the last section, but I’m going to take a break from it.

The Black Swan is a non-fiction book dealing with Philosophy and its application to Business.  The first thing that I’m going to say about this book is that it is not an easy read.  There is a lot of information in this book, and Taleb writes in an academic style, which means it isn’t the most accessible book to read.  There were several sections where I found myself re-reading some sentences before I saw what Taleb was getting it.  This isn’t necessarily a weakness of the book as long as you’re prepared for it.

The book discusses what Taleb calls a Black Swan.  A Black Swan is an event that is statistically extremely unlikely but has a huge effect.  The quintessential example of this is September 11th.  No matter what you may have read or heard to the contrary, there was nothing we could have done to predict 9/11 from happening, but it had a huge impact on our lives (and still does to this day).

The book is split into several sections, and while I enjoyed the book, I would suggest that you only read the first two sections.  The first section deals with the ways that we seek validation for what has happened, and the second section deals with the reasons that we can’t predict what is going to happen.

As an example of these, I’ll quickly discuss some of Chaos Theory, specifically the Butterfly Effect.  You may have heard of the idea that in a simulation, a very minor detail can quickly render the entire simulation ineffective.  The example commonly given is that omitting (or adding) a butterfly in Australia can lead to a hurricane in the U.S. years later.  This works well as an idea of what caused something, but you cannot look at a butterfly today and determine that it will cause a hurricane two years later, there are simply too many other variables to take into consideration, so we cannot effectively predict anything.  For validation, we can look back and blame the butterfly, even though it was impossible to see at the time.

The third section of the book was the weakest part of it to me.  The third part was essentially just calling out people who have disagreed with Taleb.  The book lost focus at this part and became a train wreck.  If you’re going to read the book, just skip part 3.

With any non-fiction book, it’s less about what the book says and more about the way that the book says it.  This is the reason that Malcolm Gladwell is brilliant, he takes a complicated topic and writes about it eloquently.  This book has an interesting topic, and it discusses it in detail, but Taleb lacks the eloquence that Gladwell possesses.

Overall Grade

I’m giving this book two different grades, one for the first two sections and one for the complete first edition of the book.  I’ll either update this or more likely do a second post after I read the added section and give that part a third score.

Sections 1 & 2 – 8/10

Entire First Edition – 5/10