Thursday, February 05, 2009

So what are you reading these days?

Here's the last two I've finished -- very different books on widely disparate subjects, but both absorbing reading.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon: this book kept showing up on everyone's reading list a few years ago, and at Christmastime Julie lent me her copy, so I no longer had an excuse to procrastinate. It's the story of Sammy Clay, a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, and his cousin Joe Kavalier, spirited out of Prague to escape the Nazis. Together Sammy (the writer) and Joe (the artist) come up with The Escapist, a new comic book hero with Houdini-like powers who fights against Hitler and the Axis. The book also chronicles Sammy's struggle -- which is not one of self-discovery as much as it is an attempt to conceal aspects of his being even from himself -- and Joe's continuing frustration as he fights the grinding machinery of bureaucracy to get the rest of his family out of occupied Prague. It's funny, well-written, symbolically rich, has some occasional squeamish moments and a few places where willing suspension of disbelief wavered for me, but overall is well worth the time.

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell: I haven't yet read Gladwell's other books, The Tipping Point and Blink, which have also garnered a great deal of critical praise. At least one chapter of this book might have been an outtake from The Tipping Point, which surmises that little things sometimes make a big difference. In that sense his work sometimes harkens back to James Burke and the Connections television series. But Gladwell has a number of other points to make in Outliers, namely that success is not wholly a question of hard work, pluck, and individual achievement. In fact, he makes a pretty convincing argument that the people who are most successful got there partly because of some arbitrary factors beyond their control, partly because they were willing to practice long hours, because they were prepared to recognize and take advantage of opportunities, and in large part because of their support structure -- the family or community that backed them, quizzed them in matters of social interaction, and otherwise provided them with the foundation they needed to achieve. This may sound horribly pessimistic, but it isn't. It's not always clear what form a successful support structure will take, for instance.

Gladwell writes well and engagingly, and it's clear he was trained as a journalist. He doesn't always lay out his arguments in the most structured way, and sometimes he doesn't follow through by thinking out the full implications of his theories or considering his chosen studies in a larger context. But he has written a book that's guaranteed to get its readers thinking about success, and about ways to improve our society so that it doesn't thwart or hobble potential.

What have you read recently? And what's on your list to read this year?

4 comments:

PG said...

I'm so glad you reviewed 'Outliers', I've been quite interested in it since the author did a interview on the radio last year. It made a lot of sense to me.
I got given a book called Black Swans which is a similar social theory book, but am having difficulty getting my pea brain round it even though it is quite a good read.

Re the Velveteen Rabbit - ironically this was the first book I was asked to produce sample illustrations for, for my present publisher, about four years ago. They were rather nice, and in my own style. But when they took the book dummy to the frankfurt Book Fair, it got turned down by the book buyers. So it never happened.

MarieC said...

I just finished The Host by Stephenie Meyer (which I liked much better than any of the Twilight books), and Spend Less, Save More by Teri Gault, the founder of the Grocery Game. It goes into more depth on how the GG works. The one thing I learned from it was to take a Sharpie and mark expiration dates in big, large print on everything in my stockpile.

Next up is either Anne of Green Gables (which I have not read before) or The Biggest Loser Family Cookbook (as I am desperate for more healthy meals that everyone in the family will eat without too much complaint).

tlc illustration said...

After I talked with you I noticed that Ed has 'Outliers' on his pile - so I have access if I think I have brain enough to attempt it. I think he makes good points, and is probably true in the general sense, but I still want to believe they are not absolute in the specific...

I just finished a post-apocalyptic/faerie YA novel called "The Bones of Faerie" which I liked very much. (And "The Magicians & Mrs. Quent" is still my favorite from late last year). Currently I am wading through a stack of graphic novels from the library. No superheroes and very little Manga - I am trying to explore YA or YYA formats for comics. Am still uncertain...

Wendy Jean said...

We are really enjoying Outliers. Kenneth heard him speak over at campus a while ago. I think what interesting is that he really proves with enough work/practice anyone can become and expert at anything they want. But it alsoexplains why certain people always come out ahead.... just because of arbitrary things like birthdate cut offs.