Outliers: What does it take to be an expert?

March 13, 2009

10,000 hours.  According to Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers:  The Story of Success, that’s how many hours of practice it takes to become an expert.  Sigh.  As I started this book I wondered if I would feel deficient.  I don’t think I’ve put 10,000 hours into anything except maybe reading, and I’m far from an expert reader.  Gladwell’s thesis for the book is exploring why some people succeed and some never live up to their potential.  While the 10,000 hour bit is an interesting piece of trivia, it is not the entire point of Gladwell’s book.  What Gladwell does is destroy the idea that anyone is a self-made anything, arguing that geography, culture, economics and plain luck in some cases influence success.  However, underlying most stories of success is hard work.  Very few successes happen overnight, something that should be reassuring to those of us toiling away in the trenches. 

Most of this fairly slim book is intriguing and provocative, but I felt Gladwell’s last chapter or two were weak.  However, Outliers is an interesting read and will challenge your ideas of how a successful person is made.


American Wife: Still Inscrutable to Me

March 13, 2009

After reading review after review of Sittenfeld’s novel as well as seeing show up on many “best of 2008” lists, I decided to give American Wife a try.  American Wife is about librarin Alice Lindgren, her life growing up in Riley, Wisconsin and how she ends up in the White House as the First Lady and the wife of a charming, immature, aimless yet ambitious son of a politically-prominent Midwestern family. If you think the story sounds a tad familiar, it is.

American Wife is Sittenfeld’s fictitious attempt to try to solve the mystery that is Laura Bush.  I think many of us have wondered about how this literate, book-loving former librarian ended up with George W.  They are two seemingly very different people. We’ve wondered how she could sit back while her husband presumably tried to attack and dismantle programs and laws she held dear.  By not saying anything, by not publicly disagreeing or possibly privately disagreeing, was she as culpable as he for the state of the nation during and after his 8 years as president?

After reading Sittenfeld’s novel, I’m not sure if I feel any closer to understanding Laura Bush or Alice Lindgren.  Ultimately, I found the book and its attempted explanations unsatisfying.  Honestly, why does Alice love Charlie?  You could argue that opposites attract and that sort of thing, but I didn’t believe their love.  Sittenfeld’s Alice is rather cold.  Sittenfeld uses an adolescent tragedy to attempt to explain why Alice feels unworthy and undeserving of anything good in her life, but it rings hollow.  With as much guilt and blame that Alice carries with her, I almost expected her to wear a hair shirt and flagellate herself.  She seems to float through her life.  It doesn’t help that Sittenfeld’s Alice ends up telling you a lot of the exposition as the book jumps forward in time.  That only adds to the cold, detached feeling one gets from Alice/Laura.

It was an interesting experiment for Sittenfeld:  take an intriguing first lady to whom everyone attributes intelligence, reason, calmness and try to figure out who she is and how she could do…nothing.  Maybe that’s why the novel feels so cold.   One has the visual of Sittenfeld nailing Alice to a piece of felt like some sort of insect and studying her, testing her, trying to explain her actions.  Truthfully, the parts of the book before Alice’s husband becomes president are the best parts.  Once Alice becomes First Lady, the story seems too contrived, too political.  Sittenfeld is trying too hard.

I wasn’t a big fan of Sittenfeld’s previous heralded novel Prep, so I shouldn’t have been surprised at my tepid reaction to this novel.  Perhaps Laura/Alice has the last laugh in remaining an enigma.

Undead and UnWhatever…My latest vampire series

March 13, 2009

Why do I enjoy vampire novels so much?  I don’t particularly like blood.  I don’t want to be “undead.”  I have enough teeth issues as it is (I was born with a tooth and have no enamel on my back molars.  My first dentist decided it was because of the “stress of childbirth.”  Ok, whatever).  For whatever reason, I really enjoy fiction featuring vampires (Laurell K. Hamilton, Kim Harrison, and the early Anne Rice). 

Anyway,  I recently discovered MaryJanice Davidson’s Undead Series (7 books so far).  As of this week, I have read them all.  The Undead series stars Betsy Taylor whose 30th birthday is memorable for being fired, being killed by a Pontiac Aztec and then not being able to stay dead.  Not only that, but the tall, gorgeous  yet somewhat dim Betsy is apparently the long-prophesied Queen of the Vampires.   Helping her find her way is the brooding, gorgeous vampire Eric Sinclair and his helper Tina, Betsy’s human friends Jessica and Marc, and various other colorful characters include a police detective, her mother, her father and stepmother, werewolves, fiends, and fellow vampires who hate her.  Bless Betsy’s heart, but she never has a dull day.  Oh, and let’s not forget her obsession with high-end shoes. 

The Undead series is light-hearted fun.  Betsy is irreverant, and Davidson’s dialogue crackles.  I laughed out loud at a couple of parts.  In my library, the books are considered romance (notice the large heart on the spine).  There is some good sex, but never fear, there is much less sex than in your average Laurell K. Hamilton novel (it would be hard to match the amount of sex in those, but that’s beside the point).  I enjoyed the first four books much more than the last three.  The last three (Undead and Unpopular, Undead and Uneasy and Undead and Unworthy) didn’t seem to have the spark that the first four did.  With the 8th book in the series due in June, I’m hoping that Davidson is back to form.

Curiously, the series is set in Minnesota, meaning yet another vampire series is set in the Midwest (along with Harrison’s and Hamilton’s).  Apparently Davidson is part of Hamilton’s group or an admirer or something, but I’m just befuddled at so much supernatural fiction being set in the Midwest.  Again, is there some reference guide all supernatural fiction writers use?

Cute series and an easy read.  I read two or three easily in a weekend.

The Battle for Christmas: Happy Holidays!

December 24, 2008

Today and tomorrow as we gather with family to celebrate Christmas, admire a beautifully decorated Christmas tree,  possibly attend midnight mass or some other religious service, keep an ear out for sleigh bells and the arrival of Santa Claus and exchange gifts, it will seem as if those Christmas traditions have been with us forever.  Surely Christmas has always been celebrated that way! As  Stephen Nissenbaum points out in The Battle for Christmas, however, Christmas is a relatively recent invention.   The Battle for Christmas traces the development of Christmas primarily in the United States from the 17th-19th centuries and how it changed from a raucous celebration that more closely resembled Halloween with alcohol, feasting, costumes, class inversion and chants demanding tribute or else a trick would be played to the domestic, child-centered holiday it has become.

This was a really interesting book.  Some of what Nissenbaum discusses I already knew…for example that the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas and even banned its celebration due to the raucous way it was celebrated with drinking, carousing, and gluttony.  The early church had placed Christmas in December in order to take advantage of existing pagan celebrations that time of year, hoping to put a Christian spin on those celebrations.  What really surprised me was how much Christmas celebrations reflected the social and economic structures of various times and how efforts to tame Christmas were a response to the  changes in society brought by the Industrial Revolution and the breaking of old bonds of service and social change.  As society changed, especially in the United States where cities were becoming chaotic and busy due to immigration and poor economic conditions, Christmas moved inside to focus on the family. 

Nissenbaum neatly punches holes in many of our beliefs about our cherished Christmas traditions.  The wealthy Knickerbocker set in New York City, dismayed over what was happening in its streets, channeled their anxiety into creating a holiday spent at home.  One member of this set, Clement Clarke Moore, pens “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” and purposefully makes Santa Claus seem less genteel than the saint upon whom he was purportedly based in order to appeal to his anxious audience.  The Christmas tree appears almost out of nowhere to become part of celebrations.

There’s a lot going on in this book.  It is a little shocking to realize that what you hold dear about the holiday is of fairly recent invention and that was possibly cynically created as a way of exerting social control.  The book isn’t mean spirited, though, and it covers a lot of ground.  As Christmas was evolving, so was commerce, and the development of the concept of gifts and buying gifts is fascinating.  We often complain that Christmas has become so commercial and we would like to return to some authentic celebration.  As Nissenbaum points out, people have been complaining about the commercialization of the holiday since they first began exchanging gifts, so this complaint is nothing new.  The way we celebrate Christmas is authentic!   It was also interesting to read about how children’s place in the family changed as Christmas began to take hold.  While most of the book is set in the North, Nissenbaum does explore Christmas in the South and how it impacted slavery.

Nissenbaum’s focus extends only to the late 19th century, and I would have loved to have read more about Christmas in the 20th century and how it has (or hasn’t) changed.  Since most of the book is set in the North, one obtains a very good idea of how Christmas developed there, but I wonder if there are other critical elements contributed from other parts of the United States that were left out.  As always…did New York lead the way?

This book doesn’t change how I feel about Christmas or will celebrate it.  If anything, it affirms how I’ve felt about the holiday: goodwill, feasting, friends and family.  The spirit of Christmas is ingrained in us and quite possibly part of our collective unconscious. Though tamed, it’s like a release valve that allows some of the pressure from the year to escape.  That’s coming perilously close to the ancient, raucous way of celebrating Christmas, but as the year winds down and winter setting in, we humans need that release. And frankly, in 2008, many of the Christmas traditions that were created in the 19th century are almost 200 years old…that may not be ancient, but it certainly makes them old and established.  Legitimate.

Bonk: For a good time, call…

November 9, 2008

Because I am in the last, super-busy weeks of the semester, I thought I could use a little diversion, so I was thrilled when Bonk:  The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex arrived for me at the local public library.  Bonk is Mary Roach’s (Stiff, Spook) latest investigative science book.  As its title suggests, it explores the history as well as current focus of sex research.  Chapters deal with whether Kinsey was really a voyeur, what an orgasm is, clitoral research as well as whether orgasm impacts fertility (using pigs!!!) and various machines, tools and strategies for research through the years.

First of all, it is amusing, yet sad the lengths and obfuscations to which scientists have to go to obtain funding for research that even tangetially touches sex.  As a culture, we are obsessed with sex (having more of it, having it better), yet we remain so squeamish about it.  Roach’s latest book tackles the topic with sensitivity, appreciation and also humor because let’s face it, a lot of the lengths researchers had to go to to research sex as well as their hypothoses and experiments are flat-out funny. I’m thinking in particular of the experiments to see how sperm gets into the uterus. Good stuff. And God bless the people who inseminate pigs and other large animals.  Oh, and let’s not forget the sex toy manufacturer she visits (reminded me of an HBO show I watched years ago–nothing like little old ladies adding hair to a dildo to make you do a doubletake) or the man who implants penis pumps. 

I’m not sure if I enjoyed this book as much as I did Roach’s other two books, but it was very interesting.  If anything, I felt like its structure was a bit harder to follow (seemed a bit meandering at times) and that she seemed to explore the same few topics from various angles.  Roach provides numerous footnotes, which are sometimes irritating in sheer volume but are always relevant and humorous.  Roach is a funny writer, and her approach to the topic is perfect. 

Also recommended:

A Southern Belle Primer: Guess mine was lost in the mail?

November 9, 2008

A Southern Belle Primer or Why Princess Margaret Will Never Be a Kappa Kappa Gamma by Maryln Schwartz was a somewhat bizarre book. Though published in 1991, it seemed like a book from a much earlier period.  It deals with a world in which certain silver patterns are expected on a wedding registry and what those patterns say about the bride registering.  Apparently, chicken salad should never contain dark meat.  I am not a fan of dark meat, so I likely would not have committed that egregious faux pas, but good to know.  It deals with a world in which women become festival queens with elaborate costumes and balls to which women must wear dresses of a certain length or else they will receive a sternly-worded letter. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a Southerner born and bred.  I was born in Salisbury, North Carolina and grew up in a town a little west of Winston-Salem.  Therefore, I consider myself Southern.  However, as with the other books set in the South that I have posted about this year, I could not find myself, traditions or experiences in this book.  I wondered if it was age.  As I said, this book seemed to refer to an older generation.  But I also have friends who were honest-to-God debutantes complete with white gown, presentation and debutante ball.  I knwo women who followed the tradition of displaying for guests to view to the wedding gifts received by the bride-to-be.  Soooo…maybe the conclusion I should draw is maybe I am not of that world that book sought to illustrate.  And maybe that’s ok.  After all, I don’t even like iced tea.  It was just a little weird to read this book and feel like there is a whole other South of which I am not a part.  And I sort of have to wonder what attitudes and beliefs are being preserved by participating in those traditions. It’s probably just my childhood wish to be Quality, royalty, nobility that is being dented. 

The book was cute and amusing.  It won’t present foes of the South with anything that would change their mind, but if you are an insider or wannabe belle, you’ll find it instructive.

Song of Kali

October 27, 2008

Song of Kali by Dan Simmons was a fitting book to follow Fangland in that they both dealt with destructive, ancient evil awakening and seeking to take over the world.  In Song of Kali, Simmons explores whether an entire city can be evil and rotten. 

Writer and editor Bobby Luczak, his wife and baby daughter travel to Calcutta to obtain a new manuscript reputedly written by a famous Indian poet long thought dead.  Though warned by several people not to go, Bobby blithely heads out.  The Calcutta he encounters is nasty, dirty, backwards and full of misery.  Everyone seems to have an agenda, and what Bobby naively envisioned as a simple acquisition of Das’ manuscript is anything but that. Somehow Bobby becomes entangled with a murderous group of Kali (fun fact: one of our servers at work is named Kali, which amuses me) worshipers who do not hesitate to sacrifice humans for their goal of bringing the goddess of death to life.   Soon everything begins to go horribly, horribly wrong for Bobby and his family. 

Song of Kali was Simmons’ first novel and as he demonstrated in The Terror, he is a master at evoking atmostphere.  If nothing else, Simmons succeeded at making you feel and smell the stink and heat of Calcutta, see the misery.  You almost want to take a bath after reading the book.  He also succeeded at creating a palpable sense of terror.  You know something bad is going to happen.  As I’ve said about other books, you know it will end up badly.  And you pretty much know what is going to wrong from the beginning.

The book was a quick read, and overall, an ok one.  There were a few fantastical elements that seemed a little out of place for a book so grounded in reality otherwise (the whole Kali issue); I had a similar impression about the end of The Terror. Some have called this book racist, but I don’t know about that.  It doesn’t paint a great picture of Calcutta or its residents, but it was set in 1977 and written around 1985, and attitudes were different then.  Bobby’s character was a little too naive. For an effort by a first-time author, it wasn’t bad at all.

Also recommended: The Terror