The one thing I regret is that I will never have time to read all the books I want to read.
--Francoise Sagan

Thursday, September 30, 2010

What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell

I'm a huge Malcolm Gladwell fan, so I couldn't resist buying What the Dog Saw a collection of his favorite articles from The New Yorker. These short pieces were perfect for me as I headed back to school after surgery. I didn't have a lot of time or energy left over at the end of the day, and there were several days when I didn't have time to read at all...but these were perfect little single-serving-sized pieces. I could read one in just 30 minutes or so and then choose another a few days later. I dabbled. I read which ever one caught my fancy on that particular day..."Hair Dye and the Hidden History of Postwar America"..."Why Some People Choke and Others Panic"..."What Pit Bulls Can Teach Us About Crime"...There were some truly interesting articles...And while I didn't enjoy these little tastes of Gladwell as much as his longer works, I was nevertheless fascinated and entertained.

I walked away with some interesting "What the Dog Saw", an article about Cesar Milan, I learned that dogs study and respond to human movements in a way that no other animals (including primates) do. There's an experiment where researchers hid a treat under one of two cups. When they brought dogs into the room, they found the dogs looked to the humans for cues as to where the treat was hidden. If the human looked at one cup or nodded in that direction, the dog would pick that one every time. Chimps, on the other hand, did not. They looked to other chimps for help and guidance but not humans. Fascinating, right?

I also learned about the power-law theory of homelessness in "Million Dollar Murray"...basically, homelessness doesn't follow a normal distribution (bell curve). Eighty percent of homeless people are off the streets really quickly, most within a single day...and they never return to the shelters or streets again. About 10 percent are "episodic users", meaning they come to the shelters for a few weeks at a time and return periodically especially in winter, but the last 10 percent are chronically homeless. And it is this chronic 10 percent that costs the health-care and social services industries the most money. One man, Murray Barr, in Reno, Nevada was homeless for ten years. When you total up his medical expenses they come to close to a million dollars! This totally changes how we think about and deal with the problem of becomes about solving a few hard cases...not dealing with thousands. Incidentally...the power-law theory applies to lots of other issues as well.

I could go on and on and on about all the interesting bits and pieces I gleaned from this collection...which takes me back to something Gladwell said in his intro. He's addressing the question he's asked most often: Where do you get your ideas? And he says, "The trick to finding ideas is to convince yourself that everyone and everything has a story to tell. I say trick but what I really mean is challenge, because it's a very hard thing to do. Our instinct as humans, after all, is to assume that most things are not interesting. We flip through the channels on the television and reject ten before we settle on one...We filter and rank and judge...We have to. There's just so much out there...but if you want to be a writer, you have to fight that instinct everyday."

I think that's true not just of writers...but of those of us who aspire to be well-educated, life-long while I'm walking away from What the Dog Saw with some incredible info stashed away, the thing that I want to remember most is that "everyone and everything has a story." I want to stay curious, ask questions, wonder...look for connections...and fight the instinct to dismiss and reject and ignore.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay is the third and final installment in The Hunger Games series. I inhaled the first two, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, over the summer, and I couldn't wait to get my hands on this one!

Because it's the last in a trilogy, I hate to go into much detail here...I don't want to spoil the first two for those who haven't read them (If you haven't, you should!) But I will say, I loved this one as much as the other two...right up until the last couple of chapters.

At the very end, Katniss, the protagonist slips into a drug induced haze...we experience the very end of the novel through a cloud of morphling: "Foam. I really am floating on foam. I can feel it beneath the tips of my fingers, cradling parts of my naked body. There's much pain but there's also something like reality. The sandpaper of my throat. The smell of burn medicine from the first arena. The sound of my mother's voice. These things frighten me, and I try to return to the deep to make sense of them." This felt like a cop out to me. It felt like Collins got to the end of a brilliant series and didn't quite know how to finish she was vague and poetic and nebulous.

In the last 30 pages, the book takes a final twist, which I hadn't anticipated...and I'm not sure I liked. It left me feeling unsatisfied. I wasn't counting on everything working out perfectly, but I was expecting, after all Katniss had endured, something closer to happily ever after...a real, indisputable victory.

I've read other readers' reviews, and reactions to the ending seem to be strong and pretty evenly split. Some people were disappointed like me; others loved it.

Either way, there's something to be said for books that cause such a stir...that make you angry...that make you think...that make you want your friends to read them just so you can hash them out together.

I'm still really glad I read this series. Now I just need you to read it, too!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Fragile Beasts by Tawni O'Dell

Tawni O'Dell is no Edith Wharton...but I love her anyway. She grew up in coal mining territory...western Pennsylvania...and writes novels set in old coal mining towns...Coal Run, Sister Mine, Back Roads (which was an Oprah book club selection several years back)...and now Fragile Beasts.

The thing I love most about O'dell is that her tiny, one-traffic-light towns...and the characters that populate them...jump off the page. They spring to life right before your eyes. There you are sitting on the bleachers at the high school football game, riding around in a beat up rolled down, pushing a cart up and down the aisles at the Kwiki-Mart, stopping to say hey to Bill...with his baseball cap pulled down low, six-pack tucked under his arm. You don't just picture the place, you feel it. You experience it. And the feel like you know them. You get involved...invested in what's going on.

Fragile Beasts is about two high school aged kids, Klint and Kyle. Their mother left, moved to Arizona with some guy and took their little sister with her. Their father works at a job he hates and drinks to forget. One night Klint and Kyle are at a bonfire when their neighbor drives up, tears in his eyes, baseball cap clenched in his fists, and tells them their father has been in an accident. He was on his way home from Wing Night at The Rayne Drop Inn...he's dead.

Meanwhile, on the outskirts of town, Candace Jack, daughter of the founder of J&P Coal lives in relative isolation, tucked away inside her mansion, nursing an ages' old broken heart.

Fragile Beasts is the story of how the boys and Candace come together and ultimately help each other heal.

The novel alternates between Kyle's voice and Candace's...but O'dell writes from both perspectives very convincingly. Neither voice feels contrived. It also shifts from present day Pennsylvania to 1960's Spain...where Candace fell passionately, tragically in love. The two venues feel equally three-dimensional...the gritty, decaying, coal mining town and the noble, vibrant Villarica.

It's not an Ethan's not subtle or deeply nuanced. It's more of a delicious, soap-opera-y kind of novel. The kind that carries you away.