18 May 2009

More mystery

Another Jonathan Kellerman book fell into my hands. It seems there are too many avid readers at Jo Ashmore's condo. They keep adding books to the common library. I was there on a day the library committee was deaccessioning books. I walked off with two Kellerman books to aid their effort to keep the shelves neat. Both of them are over 10 years old.

I took Billy Straight to the cabin called Sidetrack recently. I intended to get some yard work done. However, the rain, 30-mph winds, and cold (45°) kept me inside. Instead of cleaning full time, I read.

Billy Straight is an 11-year-old street kid in LA who witnesses a murder in Griffith Park. Kellerman tells a story about the kid's background. He tells stories about the principals in the murder and stories about the cops (lots of cops) who are investigating.

All this took place in the shadow of the OJ Simpson trial, and since one of the suspects is a minor-league celebrity, there are political pressures on the cops of the LAPD.

Kellerman does a great job of telling all those stories. Keeping them coordinated while writing and editing must have been a complex task.

It's not until the very end of the book that Kellerman pulls out his magic wand to save the good guys with narrative sleight of hand. Then he lays it on thinkly by rewarding Billy Straight with promises of happily ever after and one of the lead detectives with hints about better things to come.

It was really needless. Two squares a day and a clean lower bunk would have been luxuries for Billy Straight.

So, I enjoyed reading most of this Kellerman book while the May "blizzard" raged outside the cabin. It was certainly preferable to finding a parka and doing yard work. I could have done more cleaning, but what fun would that have been?

Do you want to tell a little bit of the world what you thought of Billy Straight? Comment here.

For Kindle

Anecdotes, anecdotes

Carmilla Washburn is a wonderful 94-year-old neighbor of Jo Ashmore. One of the many reasons she's wonderful is her book recommendations. More than a month ago she said, "You've got to read the book I just finished, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell." She's waiting patiently for me to finish so we can discuss it.

A few years ago, one of Gladwell's [left] earlier books, The Tipping Point, had been the common reading for new students at Beloit College, so David read it. Nancy and I were interested enough to read it too. Interesting perspectives on how change happens.

The subtitle for Outliers is The Story of Success. Gladwell's purpose is to explain some of the variables that go into making people extremely successful. The Beatles and Bill Gates are two of his primary examples.

Another of Gladwell's purposes is to poke holes in claims of the self-made man. I think he enjoyed quoting Jeb Bush who said (more than once) that he was a "self-made man" and that being the son of a president was a disadvantage to him as he pursued his political goals. Yeah, right! (Reminds of the joke about George II. He's the guy who was born on third base and always believed he'd hit a triple.)

Gladwell describes how timing, luck, good fortune, practice, and culture accounted as much as intellect, ambition, drive, and skill in creating "self-made people."

The Beatles were hired to play 8 hours a day in a Hamburg strip club for several years. That was a lot of practice time. Bill Gates had nearly unlimited access to an early computer terminal for a University of Washington computer at which to practice his programming.

Age is an important determiner of success in youthful competition. An incredible percentage of the all-stars in the Canadian Hockey League were born in the first three months of the year.

Gladwell's grandmother got to go to school in Jamaica because another student won two scholarships and gave one up.

The way numbers are named in East Asian languages might well give Chinese, Japanese, and Korean students an advantage in learning mathematics.

A girl who succeeds in a Bronx KIPP school has incredible determination and was lucky enough to get into the school.

Some children identified at very early ages as geniuses are incredibly successful. Others are not.

Some children from affluent, successful families are neither as adults. What makes the differences?

Gladwell catalogs bushels of reasons. Few of them offer solace to the Jeb Bushes of the world.

By the way, this is all anecdotal. Gladwell refers to some studies in his footnotes, but he's making his case by telling stories about outliers among the outliers. I'd like to see more integration of his stories and the studies. I read The Tipping Point four years ago, but I think there was more to think about in that book than this one.

Have you read any of Gladwell's books? What did you think?

Audio Book

For Kindle

10 May 2009

WaPo blog via Taiwan

Bird Loomis wrote from Taiwan where he's trying to explain American legislative politics to people there. He found Michael Dirda's contemplation of a book addiction in The Washington Post. As a recovering biblioholic, I understand. It was liberating to help David take two boxes of books to Half Price Books last week. He even came away wtih some cash.

Here's part of Dirda's comments and a couple of the comments.

Dealing With a Book Addiction
This past Thursday I went down to Georgetown to have lunch with an editor from Viking.... [O]nce I said goodbye, I immediately scuttled across the street to Bartleby’s Books... I ended up buying two novels by Flann O’Brien... [A]s it happens, I already owned both these books. But I lacked the jacket for The Third Policeman and I only had a paperback of The Hard Life. And so I bought them.

Since I don’t get to Georgetown very often, I naturally stopped off at its other used bookshop, The Lantern. There I ended up taking home a nice copy of The Princess and Curdie and an English edition from Hamish Hamilton of James Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times... Here, too, I already owned these books...

I suppose this inability to resist these already owned volumes indicates addiction, and given that I have thousands of books in boxes, that seems the likeliest diagnosis...

Do others here, I wonder, feel that their book buying is an addiction or compulsion? Do others have this vision of civilized knowledge and art compacted into a single wonderful room?...

RandyM2 wrote:
I won't buy but just look, since I have more enough books to read through 2325, but, geez, look, it's the new Peter Beagle collection or spiffy reissue of a book I decided 10 years ago I'd never read and so rooted out of my collection with only 6 hours or so of agitation over whether I might someday change my mind and, dang, wouldn't you know, I did change my mind three hours after selling it but could never find it again ...

BooklandDC wrote:
I can see myself sitting in an overstuffed leather chair in front of the fireplace, a huge mirror above the mantle, surrounded by dark wood and bookshelves about to burst.

PatrickGarson wrote:
And books are, indeed, the one thing I find myself disturbingly and pathetically materialistic about...

Also, a bookshelf for me takes on some of the qualities of a photo album; a generous catalogue of where I've been, who I was, and what I was thinking. It holds a lot of treasured memories and truly, when I'm sprawled in the lounge, I do feel that I'm surrounded by old friends.

Anyone else have thoughts on book addiciton?

BTW, do you know about Bookcrossing? It's a place on the web to register books and leave them in public places. The people who pick up the books are expected to register their finds and record their reactions. And then to leave the book in a public place so someone else can take the book on further journeys.

I once left a Bookcrossing-registered book in a Northfield coffee shop. If anyone picked it up, she or he did not follow the Bookcrossing instructions, so I have no idea whether abandoning the book led to someone else's pleasure.

It's still worth a try. Check it out.

09 May 2009

Detail-filled pictures of an era

Dan Conrad mentioned Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs mysteries here and the next thing I know, Nancy has brought home two of them from the library. What was I to do but read them before they had to be returned (one of them all the way to La Crescent, Minnesota).

The first book was last year's An Incomplete Revenge. One of Maisie's patrons, James Compton, hires her to do some background investigation in preparation for a major corporate purchase. There's a factory he wants to buy, but it's part of a huge estate. He has lived in Canada for a number of years and is no longer very familiar with the estate.

Maisie, many Londoners, and some gypsies are in the area for hops picking season. And there are many local oddities that can't easily be understood by outsiders. But there's due diligence to be done. And hops to be picked. And, of course, mysteries to be solved. The mysteries and the plot revolve around recovery from the traumas (personal and public) of World War I. The characters and the stories add human details to one of my grad school topics. I probably would have been more interested 40 years ago if I'd had personal responses like these.

What really sets Winspear's books apart are the images she creates of England in the 1930s. She describes in detail what people wear, what buildings look like, how rooms are decorated, and the colors of the landscape. All that description could get tedious (and when I tried to listen to a recorded book while driving, it did get tedious).

But I appreciate the detail when I'm reading. The pictures in my mind are much more detailed than they are when I read most other books. As I've said before, Winspear and her "cannot be named 'Cheef Resurcher'" must do incredible background research into fashion, decorating, architecture, automobiles, roads, agriculture, demography, and urban landscapes. (My only complaint is that Maisie's MG is so reliable that the car must be fictional.)

The second book is Among the Mad. Maisie gets "seconded" to a Scotland Yard investigation of threats to London and His Majesty's government. Military intelligence also is involved. While Scotland Yard is chasing after political radicals of many stripes and the military spooks are looking for alien agents, Maisie is focused on war veterans who have been misused and forgotten by society.

What we'd call post-traumatic stress is part of all Winspear's stories. Maisie is a recovering victim (she was a front line nurse in France during the war and was wounded). But the effects of PTSD and the morality of weapons development are central to this story and to an important sub-plot. And Winspear seems to be setting the stage for explaining how PTSD helped create the enviornent for World War II.

Thanks to Dan and Nancy for reminding me about Jacqueline Winspear and her Maisie Dobbs stories and for putting them in my hands. I enjoyed reading them.

See Winspear in the blog index for other reactions to her books.

So, if you've read any of them, tell us what you think. There's a comment link below and you can send me your thoughts and, with your permission, I'll add them here.