Thursday, June 24, 2021

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

 Behind the Beautiful Forevers details life in Annawadi, a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, and its residents, who are electric with hope for a prosperous future. The narrative follows key residents: Abdul, a reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, who sees “a fortune beyond counting” in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away; Asha, a woman of formidable wit who has identified an alternate route to the middle class in the form of political corruption; and her sensitive, beautiful daughter—Annawadi’s “most-everything girl”—who is expected to become its first female college graduate.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Washington Square by Henry James

 Nine Victorian wannabes gathered around their translucent monitors from California to Four Hills Village to collect the wisdom of the 19th Century.  Here is what they heard:

Thursday, April 29, 2021

The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams by Lawrence Block

 A small vaccinated gathering in the used book store of ideas.  None had evidence that Chalmers Mustard of Boston actually existed, let alone created baseball cards.  Heard among the shelves:

Rob:  I was introduced to Lawrence Block's writing some 25-30 years ago by Sandia colleague, Dave Vopicka. About the same time Block came to Albq on a book tour. He was very entertaining, so I soon read a few of the books in his Matthew Scudder series of novels. Scudder had been an NYPD detective, but left the NYPD to become a private detective. He also had a drinking problem and was a regular attendee at AA meetings. Some of the Scudder books were pretty grim, so I was glad when Block launched the Burglar book series. 

Then, a few years ago, the LTBC read the first book, I think, in Michael Orendurff's series of Pot Thief books. There was a passing mention in the book of a Bernie Rhodenbarr book. Also, the Pot Thief character is sort of a Santa Fe/Taos version of Bernie in NYC. The LTBC met with Orrendurff by phone to discuss his book. I asked him if he had had any correspondence with Lawrence Block, and he said No. Kind of surprised me.. I haven't read any further Pot Thief books -- there have been eight, I think. 

When I bought the Ted Williams Burglar book I also got an accompanying Lawrence Block book, "The Burglar In Short Order" in which he explains the origins and development of the Burglar books, and he includes several new Burglar stories.

Karl:  This is a fun book. Entertaining. Humorous. Enjoyable. 

I found the solution to be a little too contrived. Using an old Nick Charles or Hercule Poirot meeting at the end to reveal to everyone how the crimes were committed and who did what to whom – and why -- seemed a little out-of-place for the Bernie character, but it’s a tried-and-true way to end a mystery, even if not an imaginative one. I also thought that the author tried a little too hard to make all the conversations “snappy” and “witty.” 

Nevertheless, there were a number of pretty good chuckles to be had. The parody on the Sue Grafton titles was clever and funny. The poetry reading summary was hysterical. 

I liked the book enough that I’ve already purchased a couple more in the Bernie Rhodenbarr series. Given the body of Block’s work, I’m surprised that I didn’t know of him until this book suggestion.

and from locked inside the bathroom:

Had knee replacement surgery last week and thought I would have plenty of time to read this month's selection; however, my rehab schedule has left me with little to no time for reading. Sorry, Rob, would liked to have joined in the discussion. 

Regards, Jack

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Restless by William Boyd

 Nine once-brave English double agents gathered around their monitors and provided succinct yet unclassified comments as follows:

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Jack by Marilynne Robinson


Jack:  I found Jack a complex but rewarding read. Complex in structure and theme but rewarding and even enjoyable in the way in which Robinson pulled me into the theological and social debates surrounding predestination, common grace, and interracial relationships. Considering the role the church has played in my life and the doubts and struggles I have had surrounding my own faith and life experiences, I could relate to the conflicts between Jack and the church and the theology his father represents. I believe Robinson did a good job getting the reader inside Jack’s mind, showing us his torment and the complexity of his struggle. On the other hand, I thought Della came across a bit flat, which was unfortunate since she was depicted (at least in Jack’s mind) as the epitome of love and goodness. I find Robinson’s wring style very visual, which makes me feel as if I am there, and thus strengthens the story and the conflicts that play out.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Stoner by John Williams

 Ten medieval professors gathered virtually by the flickering light of their department-issued monitors and spoke as to the lifespan of a university faculty member.  Their reviews differed:

Karl:  An unremarkable story about an unremarkable man told remarkably well.

It took me a while to get interested in this book, though eventually I did become engrossed in it. Upon finishing, my regret was that a book this beautifully written was not written about a more substantive topic. Seems like a waste of effort. I don’t think I gained any insight from reading this book, which is always a disappointment. However, as prose, I admire the author’s skill. This is a well told, if not particularly enlightening, story.

and from well outside of the campus boundary:

I am so sorry that I will not be able to join the discussion of your book selection on Thursday. I have an appointment with a retina specialist that took four months to get, and I don't want to have to wait another four months. 

Thank you, Dick, for choosing this book. In my opinion, Stoner by John Williams was the best novel we have read since reading Plainsong by Kent Haruf which Tom selected three years ago. Although I found elements of tragedy and despair that reminded me of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy and even in some instances of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, I still was buoyed by the role love played in the relationship between William Stoner and his daughter and between him and Katherine Driscoll. I also found Stoner's love and passion for his work a positive and uplifting force. John Williams is an outstanding writer. The clarity of his prose underscored the intensity of the scenes in this novel as it did in Butcher's Crossing. I believe in many respects Stoner's description of Katherine Driscoll's book defines John Williams' own style: "The prose was graceful, and its passion was masked by a coolness and clarity of intelligence." 

Can't wait to hear what others thought of the book. 

Warmest regards, Jack

 To my way of thinking, Stoner is a very good novel, and I can see why critics, tired of Clive Custler, like and praise it. 

I see it in the tradition of the great American novel, of Henry James, beautifully written in telling, economical prose. The narrator sets a good pace, covering a lifetime in 278 paper back pages, and does so with great empathy for his characters. 

Even Edith, not particularly likeable, is keenly observed. As she comes down for her wedding, "she was like a cold light coming into the room." Later when she and Stoner kiss, "her lips were as dry as his own." 

This is beautiful, clear prose that does not waste words. Thus, as comes next, that short, magnificent summary of all things past and future, when on the train to St.Louis, ostensibly for their honeymoon, "Wm Stoner realized that it was all over and that he had a wife." 

"All over" indeed, so that Edith's later demand for a child has no meaning, either as a sign of intimacy or of love. 

Only one problem: this novel is an absolute downer, the perfect literary manifestation of life as an exercise in quiet desperation. As a teacher I'm still trying to figure out how I'm going to present this novel for its many merits to the young man in the second row, looking sideways at the girl adjusting her sweater. 

How am I going to convince him that this dreary stuff is worth reading? Stoner perfectly demonstrates the dilemma of teaching the Humanities in an era focused on technology and progress. Compared to Stoner, I submit that even differential equations are exciting, and Boolean algebra becomes almost sensuous

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

 'Twas brillig in the slithy toves, and a dozen formerly successful white males, all born within seven years of each other, clustered within the confines of their computer monitors. 'Twas a cold winter day out there in both the Big Duke City and in Guthrie, OK - even California was at 47 degrees - a good day to huddle up with a warm book in front of a roaring (or gas supplemented) fireplace.
The successful ones spoke coherently and offered the following observations re their own achievements. 

Jack:  I thoroughly enjoyed Outliers. It was fascinating to me. I thought it would be another one of those mind-numbing success manuals, but I found it entertaining and thought-provoking. If Gladwell's intent was to make me think about the world a little differently and why certain people succeed, he was successful. A-

Peter:  Subtitle of Gladwell's book is The Story of Success.  Right off the bat my reaction is: Trite. Is there anything we as Americans worship more than success? Well ok, maybe Twinkies, but the suggestion here is one story after another of SUCCESS. Boring. 

Some folks ask, why see "Hamlet," we know how it ends? 

More to the point, Dylan Thomas, "After the first death there is no other,..." death, in effect , but also always the same. 

The Rosetans introduction. Yes, heartwarming, but hardly unique, as it is an example of the Mediterranean Diet we have come to love, and its life style, simply transposed to America. 

Example: My former neighbor, Rena Cavaletti, from a Hornell, NY, railroad family. Went to work as a "soda jerk" at fourteen, at which time by her own admission she started to smoke. She died at age 94, still smoking Pall Mall unfiltered. So was it the Mediterranean diet she had taught me to cook, or the life style of her Italian community in Hornell, or just good genes? Hard to isolate a proximate cause, as Gladwell does, other than by wishful thinking. 

The 10,000 Rule, the Beatles playing for the magic number of hours in seedy clubs in Hamburg. But as Gladwell, and the Beatles themselves, declare, it could not just as well have been the sex and drugs, rather than the long hours, that were the reasons for their success. 

So then the Silicon Valley guys, pioneers of modern information systems, the quintessential trio at the chapter's end to be born within a year of each other. Realizing that knowledge may be conveyed by a binary system and lucky enough to enter this field at a seminal time, they are recognized as its pioneers. But this is just as much a matter of the right place at the right time than of clustering birth dates. And as punch cards with their Honeywell sorters attest, the principal concept and its technology, admittedly in a state of infancy, were already known in the 19th century rug and tapestry mills of England and Belgium, which had mechanized pattern weaving by the same method of punch cards. 

I don't know if this is a quite fair analogy, but let's take an area of somewhat greater consequence to see whether we would ascribe success to the clustering of birth dates of the individuals. In the 19th century Lise Meitner, 1878, Albert Einstein, 1879, Niels Bohr, 1885; and later the youngsters, Werner Heisenberg, 1901, Robert Oppenheimer, 1904, Hans Behte, 1906, Edward Teller, 1908. Throwing out the new kid, Richard Feynman, 1918, the first group clusters within seven years, and so does the later one. Altogether they cluster by birth date across fourteen years. Would anyone--other than Gladwell--ascribe the genius of their formulations to the proximity of their birth dates? A certain group that clusters can become idolized as pioneers. But in the end it remains a matter of advancing human knowledge in which the individual human genius and effort play an admittedly concomitant but also co-incidental probative part. Birth dates by themselves are inconsequential.

Gladwell's allegations do not amount to causality; they remain the "oh-aren't-we-clever" stuff found on the NYT's best sellers.  Grade:  B

Karl:  This book is both interesting and thought-provoking. It’s well put together and the stories in it are fascinating. The writing style is adequate to the task. 

The book starts off talking about real outliers but most of the book is not so much about outliers as it is stories of successful people, hence the subtitle: The Story of Success

The author’s arguments are most convincing when they are data-based. Those where he is extrapolating from one or two examples are less convincing – though still interesting and thought-provoking. 

My biggest criticism with the book is that the author doesn’t give enough credit to success for drive, perseverance, ambition, intelligence, and good old hard work. Though to be fair, he does call attention to all of these things at different points in the narrative. It’s difficult to think that anyone who has read this book can continue to think himself as “self-made.” The author is quite effective in showing that that’s not quite the case, even for folks who are thought of as real outliers. 

Overall, the book accomplishes what it sets out to do – and does so in a credible, easy-to-follow way. A-

and locked well outside the confines of the friendly Zoom video screen:

Mike:  The title threw me a bit, as in my mind “outliers” are statistically questionable outcomes that you throw out of the calculation. An example in the recent election where several polls had Joe Biden leading by 4% to 7%, but one “outlier” had him ahead by 17%. No one believed that poll, and all called it an ‘outlier’. 

The cover of the book threw me a bit also. 

The hockey players all born in January and February reminded me of what my late wife Helen would say about artists. I felt she was very talented art wise, but she would counter, “There are thousands of really good artists out there, they are just not known.” That also reminded me of Dolly Parton who said her siblings sang as good as she did. She was the one who wanted to perform onstage. 

I’m thinking the real secret of success is motivation – you have to be really obsessed with your interest and work hard to get better at it. I was always surprised to hear that Michael Jordan practiced so much – I thought, “Heck, he’s the best basketball player in the country, he doesn’t need to practice, just show up!” 

When Tom and I were teaching at the Air Force Academy, Helen and I had season tickets to the Falcons basketball games. But they were quite boring, and we often got up from our basketball seats and walked up to the concourse and down into the ice hockey arena seats – which were free. And there we noticed a Gladwell Correlation - namely, that five of the Academy's eleven fielded hockey players were all from the litile town of International Falls, Minnesota. Aha! Another criterion for success! (also, that they were all shorter and weighed less than Helen, but she didn't like for me to point out that criteria). 

What upset me the most was the presentation of Rosie, the hard-working non-math individual working with the computer program on slope (as correctly defined by rise over run). The author could have easily mentioned that it takes two points to determine a line and thus the slope of a line, and with the illustrations provided, apparently all lines went through the intersection of the X and Y axis, thus (0,0) was one [of two] points that determined the line we would be working with. 

OF COURSE it is possible to provide a formula for a line parallel to the Y axis. The Y-axis itself has the line formula: X=0 , a completely legitimate formula. Yes, the slope is infinite, but the formula is solid. There are infinite such lines parallel to the Y axis, e.g., X = 2, X= pi, X=.0001.  

My calculated slope for Outliers:  B