Wednesday, November 30, 2011

NY Times 10 Best Books of the Year

The New York Times has published its list of ten best books of the year (5 fiction and 5 non-fiction).  I've read three of the five fiction pieces and all of them are worthwhile.  The list of the 100 notable books of the year can be found here.

THE ART OF FIELDING By Chad Harbach (get the book here)
11/22/63 By Stephen King (get the book here)
SWAMPLANDIA! By Karen Russell (get the book here)
TEN THOUSAND SAINTS By Eleanor Henderson (get the book here)
THE TIGER’S WIFE By Téa Obreht (get the book here)

Non-fiction (NYT summaries below)
By Christopher Hitchens
Our intellectual omnivore’s latest collection could be his last (he’s dying of esophageal cancer). The book is almost 800 pages, contains more than 100 essays and addresses a ridiculously wide range of topics, including Afghanistan, Harry Potter, Thomas Jefferson, waterboarding, Henry VIII, Saul Bellow and the Ten Commandments, which Hitchens helpfully revises.

By Ian Brown
A feature writer at The Globe and Mail in Toronto, Brown combines a reporter’s curiosity with a novelist’s instinctive feel for the unknowable in this exquisite book, an account — at once tender, pained and unexpectedly funny — of his son, Walker, who was born with a rare genetic mutation that has deprived him of even the most rudimentary capacities.

A Life of Reinvention.
By Manning Marable
From petty criminal to drug user to prisoner to minister to separatist to humanist to martyr. Marable, who worked for more than a decade on the book and died earlier this year, offers a more complete and unvarnished portrait of Malcolm X than the one found in his autobiography. The story remains inspiring.

By Daniel Kahneman
We overestimate the importance of whatever it is we’re thinking about. We misremember the past and misjudge what will make us happy. In this comprehensive presentation of a life’s work, the world’s most influential psychologist demonstrates that irrationality is in our bones, and we are not necessarily the worse for it.

Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War.
By Amanda Foreman
Which side would Great Britain support during the Civil War? Foreman gives us an enormous cast of characters and a wealth of vivid description in her lavish examination of a second battle between North and South, the trans-Atlantic one waged for British hearts and minds.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

The hottest book this fall is Walter Isaacon's biography of Steve Jobs, entitled Steve Jobs.  It has been at the top of the best seller list since Jobs' untimely death in October 2011.  For anyone interested in technology, product development, business, the seismic changes in the music or movie industries or entrepreneurship generally, this is a must read.

The basic contours of Jobs' story are well known.  Steve Jobs, the college-dropout, hippie, Zen-oriented, whiz kid, created the personal computer with his friend in his parent's garage.  The computer, the Apple, becomes a runaway hit, evolved into the Macintosh (and the mouse and user interface that most of us currently use), and created an entire industry.  On the heels of his success, Jobs was fired by the company he created.  He created a new computer company, Next, which flopped.  After finding some humility, Jobs found his way back into Apple, reinvigorated the company, learned from his mistakes and then revolutionized the PC industry, the animation/movie industry (by creating Pixar, which made megahits such as Cars, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Toy Story etc.), the mobile phone industry (the iPhone) and mass-marketed touch computing.  He then created the tablet category of computers with the runaway hit, the iPad.  Jobs did not market test his ideas; he believed that consumers did not always know what they wanted.  He designed a closed ecosystem of computing that allowed him to create and control an optimal and complete computing experience.  For years, his approach was derided as Microsoft grew and grew.  Finally, with the iPod, the iPhone and iPad, the rationale for the closed eco-system took off, making Apple one of the most valuable companies in the world.  As a marketing genius, entrepreneur and visionary, Jobs was incredible.  Jobs demanded perfection from himself and those who worked for him.  As a business leader, there is a lot to learn from him.

As a person, Jobs was a flawed (i.e., normal) human being.  He made mistakes and often learned from them.  Jobs was adopted as a baby and well cared for by his adopted-parents.  Yet, as a young man, Jobs fathered a child and essentially abandoned her.  Later in life, he brought her back into his life.  This is surprising behavior from a man who presumably should be most sensitive to the damage caused by abandonment.  As a boss, he could be demeaning  and unnurturing.  His ability to warp reality (what those around him called the "reality distortion field") was not only a powerful business tool, it also carried into his personal life with negative consequences.  When Jobs was first diagnosed with cancer, the man who was at the forefront of technology and possessed contacts and money chose to ignore his cancer, essentially trying to will it away and ignore it.  About nine months later, he finally began to come to terms with it and started treating it by more traditional means.

Several years before his death but after Jobs knew about his cancer, Jobs asked Isaacson to write his biography.  Jobs believed that his legacy was worth chronicling (as it was).  Isaacson had published successful biographies about inventors/geniuses (Benjamin Franklin: An American Life and Einstein: His Life and Universe; both are excellent reads).  Jobs saw himself as the continuation of these stories.  He was probably right.

Isaacson had full access and complete editorial control over the book.  Jobs seemed to have shared everything.  The only criticism of the biography is that Isaacson became to close to his subject.  Occasionally, it shows. Yet, who wouldn't be in awe of the man who created and/or reshaped the technology, movie, music and mobile phone industries.

Two interesting notes for the literary oriented reader.  Jobs dated Jennifer Egan, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad and personally installed a Mac for her.  Jobs' natural sister, Mona Simpson, is a writer, who incorporated her brother and his life into her bestselling books.  The biography is filled with interesting tidbits and should be at the top of everyone's reading list.

[Full disclosure -- this review was written on a Dell.  Soon enough, I'll be on a Mac.]

Many of you will remember this famous 1984 Superbowl commercial that launched the Mac:

The launch of the iPhone in 2007:

Steve Jobs' Stanford Commencement Speech:

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jeffrey Eugenides is one of the "big" novels to come out this fall.  Eugenides' previous works include The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex.

The novel is a throwback (a classic love triangle, all about marriage, set in the 1980s) and yet quite modern in its approach.  The story is set in the 1980s.  Madeleine Hanna, an English lit major, graduates from Brown University.  Madeline, a daughter a small university president and part of an upscale family, completes her senior thesis on the "marriage plot" that was the centerpiece of many classic novels (e.g., Jane Austen).  With the descent and decay of the institution of marriage, the import of the novel declined as well.  Madeline becomes deeply involved with Leonard Bankhead, a complicated and brilliant manic depressive.  Meanwhile, Madeline also has a relationship with her admirer, Mitchell Grammaticus, who decides to forgo divinity graduate school for a spiritual search through Europe into India.  The three characters contend with the challenges of coming-of-age, marriage, spiritual searches, mental illness, feminism, parental involvement, divorce and even careers. Eugenides begins the story with the characters' college graduation, constantly back-filling the story as he slowly moves the plot forward.  The story does not move more than a couple of years post-college.

The writing is top notch.  In some ways, stylistically, Eugenides reminds me (positively) of Jonathan Franzen although The Marriage Plot is a more tightly-focused and far less expansive work than Freedom.  One of the treats about this novel for literature lovers is that Eugenides pours literary references liberally throughout the book.  It is quite humbling.

I enjoyed (but did not love) this novel.  Because the novel was so tightly focused, at points, the plot was weighed down by its details, nearly coming to a halt.  I also felt that the placement in the 1980s (cultural references and all) felt a bit forced.  Perhaps dropping the story into the pre-Internet, cellphone, Facebook/Twitter age simplified some of the social interactions; but, it felt unnatural. With all of that said, the novel was not one I found I had to fight to get through.  It was enjoyable, well written and well executed.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz (and more on Sherlock Holmes)

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz is a new Sherlock Holmes novel, which is the first officially sanctioned take-off of Sherlock Holmes by the Arthur Conan Doyle Estate.  This is the second Sherlock Holmes book that I have written about recently (see my review of A Study in Sherlock here).  For the Sherlock Holmes lover, this is a must read.  For everyone else, I'd  highly recommend it.

Anthony Horowitz is a famed writer of young adult action novels (the Alex Rider series) and also an acclaimed writer of the PBS series Foyle's War (a must see for mystery lovers/WWII buffs).  His connections to Sherlock Holmes and the Canon were not as established.

Conan Doyle had a distinct writing style (somewhat sparse on detail of Victorian life but more than enough to fill the canvas) and created vivid and memorable characters.  Although Holmes solved his share of murders, he also solved all kinds of other crimes and mysteries.  Creating the perfect pastiche requires echoing Conan Doyle and remembering that Holmes was not a superhero (as he is portrayed in the Robert Downey, Jr. movies, which I did enjoy (preview for the new movie below)).

In The House of Silk, Horowitz gets it right on all counts.  The tone, the writing, the characters and even the plotting matches up beautifully with Conan Doyle.  Horowitz also brings back other minor characters from the Canon for non-distracting cameo appearances, which is a delight for lovers of the Canon.  Yet, Horowitz makes Sherlock his own, creating a story with a bit more action than Conan Doyle gave us, which will keep you glued to the book.  The story is a classic tale of Holmes and Watson, with Watson as the narrator.  Watson writes the story after Holmes has passed away and seals it away for one hundred years because the story is to explosive to be shared during their lifetimes.  From there, the story unfolds with two unrelated story lines, the action builds and Horowitz captures your imagination. If like mysteries at all, this is one not to miss.  If you love Sherlock Holmes, this is a must read.

On a related note (and to avoid another post in the near future about Sherlock Holmes), there is a great new book about Conan Doyle as a writer, called On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling by Michael Dirda. Besides Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle wrote many other books (adventure, historical and supernatural stories).  Dirda, a long time lover of Sherlock Holmes, writes a short piece on Doyle as a writer.  He  not only expands on Conan Doyle the writer but he also shares his own interactions with Sherlock Holmes and the Canon.  While this is a great book, this is best suited for serious students of the Canon or writers looking to learn more about great writers. 

Book Trailer for The House of Silk:

2011 Sherlock Holmes Movie Trailer: