Monday, August 16, 2010

Outliers - Malcolm Gladwell

This non-fiction book is along the same vein as Freakonomics. 

It looks at certain success stories, examines the circumstances behind each story, and highlights that factors that came into play.

For example:
- looking at professional sport leagues, a high proportion of players have birthdays at the start of the school year. This turns out to be, not that a certain star sign is better at that sport than others, but rather when these people were at a formative age, kids were selected for special programs based on intakes for a year level. But when kids are only 7-8, an eight year old can be a lot bigger and more coordinated than one who has only recently turned 7. And this compounds, with those selected for special programs getting more practice and encouragement etc, so that by the time they are in late high school and being checked out by talent scouts, those with birthdays earlier in the age bracket are more likely to be selected.
- talent versus hard work. Hard work and practise is far more important, no matter how talented you are. This is looked at in many ways... The Beatles and their seasons playing live in Hamburg prior to recording their first record; musicians at a music school and the hours they spend practising; cultural attitudes to hard work vs leisure time for kids. Examples also of successful school programs in disadvantaged areas.
- the actual opportunities to be leaders (and sometimes get rich) in your field are rare. One example is all the silicone valley success stories (Apple, Microsoft, Sun etc). The founders were all born around 1955. Had they been born earlier, computer science and programming would have been a boring and pedantic field of science to study. Had they been born later, they would have missed the boat. On top of that, they had a lot of opportunities to access computers, via a school or nearby university, to practice with PRIOR to the invention of the personal computer.

This book was interesting. My key thoughts:
- I wish I'd read this as a teenager, as it might have helped me to realise that I needed to work hard at things I wanted to be good at.
- Dismay, that my varied career is not helping me to become an expert in anything in particular.
- It has changed my attitude to kids being given homework right from the start of school, which is common now (as compared to "in my day" when you didn't get regular homework until late primary school).

A highly recommended book, even though the wrap-up chapter can be a bit corny.

The Road - Cormack McCarthy

Or... how to keep yourself sleepless.... Not just because it is a gripping read, but because it haunted me!

"The Road" is a tale about a man and his son surviving in a post apocolyptic world, when everything is dead or dying, and everyone is scavenging what remains of food, from cans and packets, or worse, eating other people. Everything else that is usable is running out - ammunition, shoes, clothing, wood for making fires. The boy's mother features in the man's memories, but has died by the time the story starts. They meet some characters along the way, and none are what you'd call friendly.

When given something deep and/or worrisome or disturbing to think about, I am prone to insomnia. "The Road" is the first book I've read in a long time that has stuck with me so vividly, and kept me awake far, far into the night. The plots of many other books (and movies) become fuzzy soon after reading them, but the events of this book return to my brain regularly, and I read this months ago.

Why? Several reasons:

- a key plot point is never explained. You never find out what exactly happened to the world. It is kind of implied that there has been a nuclear war, but you don't know why, or how this all unfolded. It is a few years in the past when the story starts, and you just get snippets of it from the man's memories. This is plenty to wonder about.
- people driven to the edge. Resources are so scarce that you kill or be killed. Some resort to cannibalism. Some try to retain their humanity. What is humanity? It's a fine line when protecting those you love at times. What would be the point of life under these circumstances?
- parenting. All the big questions, such as how to best instill the/your key values in children? can you pass on everything that is important before you die? would you really want to have children faced with such a bleak future? Can you always find things to hope for? How do children view the world you grew up in?

These are not just questions for the grim circumstances of the book. I understand that the author, who became a parent in his 50's or 60's, and is faced with reaching old age sooner than most parents, wrote this about his own fears of not being able to pass everything important on to his son before he dies. Another part of the story is the mother's story, told through the man's memories. She is pregnant at the time the nuclear war (presumably) starts, and the boy is born soon after. She finds she can't feel optimistic at all in a post-apocalyptic world. As a woman, naturally, she has different fears.

A highly recommended read.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Jeckyl and Hyde

We saw a review of "Dr Jeckyl and Mr Hyde" by Robert Louis Stevenson on the First Tuesday Book Club, then saw it for sale cheaply at a book shop and thought "Why not?".

It is interestingly written, and the writer has given much thought to details - how the big secret will be gradually revealed, how to make it shocking.

However, it is all a bit ruined by its famousness, sadly. Everyone knows the plot twist. I'm sure Looney Tunes even did a cartoon where someone turned evil and needed a potion to turn back to normal.

I did enjoy it, though, and it's a quick read. The book contains other short stories by the same author, so hopefully I can review them too in the future.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Help! Each book I read keeps getting made into a movie!!

So, I have actually been fitting in a bit of reading lately.

A disturbing trend is emerging - I read a book... come across it by chance or because someone gives it to me or lends it to me. Then it gets made into a movie, or I find out that a movie has already been made. For example:

- The Time Traveller's Wife (Audrey Niffeneger) - an entertaining read. At first I thought it was going to be a bit of a Benjamin Button story, but it is better. Movie release imminent, but I'm not really interested in seeing this - don't think it will add to my reading experience.

- A Most Wanted Man (John le Carre) - spy thrillers ain't what they used to be. Just isn't the same now the main character isn't slipping under the Berlin Wall to conduct their espionage. Not a movie - but I'm sure it will be soon.

- The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold) - An interesting book, on how a family and community copes with time after a girl is murdered. Being made into a book by Peter Jackson, who will make sure the looking down from heaven bits aren't all harmonicas and angel wings. Would be interested in seeing this film.

- Let the right one in (John Ajvide Lindqvist) - Vampires in the 'burbs of '80's Stockholm. Apparenty this is already a film, but I never heard of it when it came out. May rent this one out. Not sure how they handled the gruesome bits, and if they did them graphically, I'm not sure I want to see it!!

And lined up next...

- The Road (Cormac McCarthy)

And... on the TV the other night - Slaughterhouse 5 (I'm still yet to get my hands on a copy of this to read, but want to...) and Farenheit 451.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Getting Graphic

I find it very hard to get much reading done, but have managed to read a few graphic novels lately:

"Maus", by Art Spiegelman
Tells the story of the author's father and mother, who were Jewish and survived WW2 in Poland. The Jews are depicted as mice, Nazis as cats, Poles were pigs - seems a little bit Animal Farm from what I'm writing, but that's where the similarities end. They story is probably just as it came from the Author's Father's mouth, but the drawings of humanoids with animal heads make it just bearable to read, given the horrors that went on at the time. Brilliant. There are actually 2 books, but the book I read was actually 2 volumes in one.

Moomin - the complete Tove Jannson Comic strip

Tove Jannson - author of the Moomintroll children's books - released comics in strips in the 50's, and these were compiled into 3-4 volumes. We've been lent the first one. I never read them as kids, but am enjoying them. They are different to the books, apparently, which are a lot more whimsical - I'm saving them to read aloud to my son when he's old enough. But the comics have funny stories about the Moomins, who are somewhat naive creatures living a quiet, plain life in Finland. I can't imagine anything like this being written today - they have a nice innocence about them.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Housing works bookstore

Enjoyed this book store, a beacon of cosiness, but along with the slick art books and great lofty wooden shelf decor was a great slightly real feel thanks to volunteer run cafe with affordable snacks and drinks, second hand books, and knowing that it's all for a good cause. B Sharp and I picked up several good reads here, and enjoyed the rest from sight seeing.

New old books

Thanks to Richard for giving me these gorgeous, well thumbed, pieces of art. I haven't begun reading them yet but love them anyway as little bits of ephemera which have lasted the distance (I know some people say paperbacks shouldn't be kept, but I really like that they manage to keep going despite their frailty, and wear their age proudly not like some haughty preserved hard cover) and also as a gesture of friendliness from a local while I was away from home in Montreal recently and looking for local bookshops. He couldn't recommend anything in particular so passed on some books instead. How cool is that?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Lovely little bookies

The two books I want to share today were birthday presents from BSharp, all the way from old Amsterdam. The first one, Tight Fit (edition one) is a full colour saddle stitched A5 zine, with fine production values, and even finer pictures. Put together by Sarah Lippett ( and featuring the work of 9 other contributors, this little book is a brief, stylish, lighthearted, visually confident and silly exploration of the beard (well facial hair, but mostly beards). My favourite part is the section on 'literal facial hair'- with pictures of a man with actual mutton chops perched on either cheek, bicycle handlebars as mustouche.. you get the idea. The colour is fun and this with the slick and 'now' illustration style makes it very readable and easy to engage with in a way that B&W, 'made on the work copier' publications often don't manage (though I know old skool zinesters would think me missing the point of the genre for saying so).

The next little book is It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks, a slightly smaller than DL sized art book with no words, each page featuring a colourful monster face. The images look like they've been done with water colours and maybe gouche and are deliciously contorted and full of character. I like the detil in the faces andthe way that they look a little awkward and unslick. The detail and use of colour in each image is really quite beautiful. Sourced to

Friday, April 24, 2009

Fast books: would you like a glass of wine with that?

I just found this exciting article about a new machine that prints books while you wait. Ok, look there should be a law that they can only ever use recycled paper. But - how cool it that? I just imagined a whole new world for the bookshop. Maybe the big chains will keep a front section display with all the lastest chick-lit, Ian Rankin, South American magic realism pastiche and Irish poverty porn novels. But in the back will be a couple of these beasties, with nice LED-touch screen displays, where you can surf through millions of books and - voila! your own copy. It would be an awesome way to get hold of journal articles, proper peer-reviewed research, and academic work, too. Gawd, a potential antidote to the endless circular arguments on the internet which relay he said/ she said nonsense without any real research or fact finding. Oh frabjous day. Imagine if you were studying in the outback and you had one of these babies and an internet connection in town? Imagine if you can get them into kids community centres in remote areas, for printing picture books or exercise books? What about in Kabul, Bagdhad, Nairobi? I guess the database must come from laborious digitisation of old issues.. this has been going on for some time now, I think the NSW state library is fairly heavily involved. A truly wonderful thing.