Outliers — Review by Chris

What made Steve Jobs, Bill Joy and Bill Gates rise to the top of their fields and change the way we work and live? Some say talent. Some say luck. Some say class advantage. Some say drive and determination.

And they're all right. But what do they all share that puts them in a category unto themselves?

When Malcom Gladwell reveals that information in his newest book Outliers, you'll be surprised — then it will make sense.

That's because Gladwell knows how to explain complicated information in very precise but "plain" language. I have read his other two books, The Tipping Point and Blink, and I enjoyed them very much. His plain language and straight talk make the complex materials and conclusions very understandable.

Having said that, I have to admit: I can't explain it myself very well. And I don't necessarily remember it for very long. (Which may explain why I'm no Steve Jobs.)

However, that I blame on Gladwell's smooth transitions between subjects and topics. His chapters are beautifully organized and his information unfolds like a story. I wanted to know how class and financial status of a family unit influence how children do in school. I wanted to know how an off-the-charts genius could flunk out of school — twice! — and wind up on a small farm in the American Midwest, when other people not even a fraction as smart (including Robert Oppenheimer) manage to navigate the trickiest parts of the institutions that so baffled him. Finally, I simply had to know how it all fits together. Gladwell makes these discoveries a delight to experience.

I was particularly intrigued about the book after hearing an NPR interview with Gladwell, in which he commented on the danger of making general statements about any particular nationality or ethnicity. And yet, this is exactly what Gladwell does — with great success. What problems do Koreans face in the cockpit of a plane? Why are Asians better at math than Caucasians? Why did Jewish lawyers blossom in the latter half of the twentieth century? Can one make general statements about an ethnicity or race without being racist or categorically unfair and biased? Gladwell manages, and give me hope for more honest and probing studies and reports in the future.

I enjoy reading Gladwell's work. I read his work in the Washington Post and New Yorker magazine. I envy and enjoy his turn of phrase and his ability to get to the nut of a thought. His explanations or ideas are not short or truncated; you must follow him down the rabbit hole to get where he is going. It's a decision you will be glad you made.

Please read this book and find out how sometimes, brains and brawn finds assistance in the most unlikely of places — and how something as unexpected as immigration patterns, rice farming or a loan from a local Chinese shopkeeper can impact the human race beyond our wildest imaginations.


All Things Austen - Reviews by Carole

Last weekend, I had the privilege of seeing a dear friend's son play Mr. Darcy in his high school production of Pride and Prejudice (P&P). What fun! I had never seen it performed as a play; I watched with great joy as the young actors and actresses delivered Austen's words with feeling. It was a lovely night of theater.

I have been a fan of P&P for many years now. In addition to owning different editions of the book, my daughter and I seek to own all of the film versions. I find it fascinating that each generation seems to have its Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth. Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson; Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle; and Matthew McFadden and Keira Knightley have all paired up as the famous couple. I know there are others, so please let me know about them. Chris tells me that I have to see the Bollywood musical version, Bride and Prejudice. Each has its charms, but most charming of all to me is the endurance of this story.

A young college student I know tells me that she is taking a movie class, and they are discussing why Jane Austen, particularly through P&P, remains so popular and why each generation seems to choose it for its own. Her professor is of the opinion that it's just good marketing--I think it's much more than that. You can market a lousy story all you want, it just isn't going to resonate with people. My particular belief is that it is all about the story. In the case of P&P, I believe that it's not that women wish their men were Mr. Darcy, but rather they see Mr. Darcy in their men. If men knew that, they may like P&P more.

I also noticed something else almost by accident. I seem to have acquired almost an entire bookshelf of P&P spinoffs. This appears to be a recent phenomenon and one I didn't initially seek out. But they've sort of crept up on me. Why so many spinoffs now? One of the authors actually thanks Jane Austen for being out of copyright. I'm sure that is a factor, but that is not a recent enough occurrence to account for all of these Austen-inspired books. Something more must be at work here. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Here are the P&P products I've read in the past year (and many other remain to be discovered):

Darcy's Story

By far and away, my favorite re-telling of a tale. Janet Aylmer does an amazing job of telling us P&P from Mr. Darcy's point of view. Darcy is absent for much of P&P--this book tells you what was happening to him through all of this. It made me heart Mr. Darcy even more. (I realize that not all women heart Mr. Darcy--I'd love to hear where you fall in this debate)

Me and Mr. Darcy

Alexandra Potter sets this tale in modern day; the heroine has suffered through a series of unsatisfying relationships. After her latest breakup, her roommate begs her to forget her woes in a margarita-induced haze in sunny Mexico. Instead she decide quite spur of the moment to take a Jane Austen tour of England. She turns out to the be youngest person on the tour by many years, and she thinks she's made a huge mistake. Then the strangest things start happening--she keeps running into this man who seems so familiar to her. He seems to be from another time...you get the idea. It's a lovely bit of fluff-n-trash--I enjoyed it.

Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife

As my mother said after she read it, "...and takes and takes and takes!" In other words, this is a bawdy tale. But fun in the extreme. This book picks up where Jane Austen left of in P&P. True Austenites might be appalled. We see a lot more of Mr. Darcy, and we get a lot more romance. I'll also admit that I ended up flagging more than 20 words that I had never heard before--that doesn't happen often, so hats off to Linda Berdoll for writing what is essentially a high-brow bodice ripper. Fluff-n-Trash at its best.

Darcy & Elizabeth: Nights and Days at Pemberley

Berdoll continues the story in this sequel to the spinoff. I particularly like how the nasty characters in P&P get a chance to be even nastier. Lady Catherine is at her conniving, arrogant best. Lydia and Wickham prove time and again why they deserve each other--their selfishness knows no bounds.

The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen

Chris gave me this book for my birthday. It was great fun because it's written as a novel that reads like one of Austen's own books. The family tree at the beginning was fascinating to me. The similarities between this book and Becoming Jane are considerable. I didn't read that one, but enjoyed Anne Hathaway as Austen in the movie.

The Jane Austen Book Club

This is my least favorite of the bunch. While I liked the idea of a rather disparate group of women (and one man) getting together to read the works of Austen, I was disappointed in the lack of follow through. To me, it seemed as if it were set up so that each character would encounter some Austen-inspired plot twist in their own lives and find inspiration from the books. But that wasn't it--they read each of the books and they lived their lives. Big whoop! I was not thrilled to hear that they were making a movie of it, but I wasn't surprised. Darn this power of mine--it's a blessing and a curse! Good cast notwithstanding, I don't think there's enough story there to save it.

Lost in Austen

I bought this for my daughter, and we both have had fun with it. It's labeled by author Emma Campbell Webster as a Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure. You read until you come to a point where you have to make a decision, and based on your choice, you turn to specified pages. This book dumps all of Jane Austen's plots into one big soup pot, stirs it up, and lets you decide whether you have something palatable or not. My daughter didn't enjoy it as much as I did, but she was being diligent about keeping track of her points earned; I just read it, made my choices, and wandered where the book would lead me, so I had fun with it. I do confess to backtracking to see what would have happened if I had chosen the road less traveled.

To sum up, I’m not sure why Jane Austen’s works, particularly P&P seems to be hitting a new stride with today’s audiences, but I’m happy that they are. You know that when there is a Jane Austen for Dummies and an action figure that you are alive and well in the 21st century!


If it's Heavy, Can it Be Fluff 'n Trash™?

I am having the best time reading Penny Vincenzi's Lytton family trilogy. However, it begs the question: can something so substantial really be Fluff 'n Trash™?

Carole and I were discussing that very topic just last night. Earlier this week, I called her and declared, "Pandora!" She knew exactly what I meant.

Carole has read all three books (No Angel, Something Dangerous, Into Temptation), while I'm only about halfway through the trilogy. (I read the first book in 2003, but just re-read it to make sure I didn't miss a thing before moving on to the last two books.) Carole is spectacular about not letting on a thing about what actually happens next, a trait I very much adore about her and her family. (Remind me to tell you about two very respectful children not spilling the beans during my Harry Potter catch-up one spring.)

Lately, I have needed light reading. I've plowed through a few months' worth of People magazine, The Onion and two Janet Evanovich novels so far during my convalescence. I've enjoyed it, relaxing on the couch with Rob's iPod playing softly in the background as I thumbed through some light reading. (I also read a couple of Rolling Stones, but those border Serious Material with the in-depth stories and interviews for Campaign '08.)

So, in that vein, I lined up all three Lytton books to round out my Fluff 'n Trash™ selection.

However, the so-called "Spoils of Time" series are an interesting hybrid: light reading that is much more substantial in storyline and character development than traditional light fare. Years after having read them, Carole can still recite storyline and characters from the Lytton family saga.

So I ask: can it be Fluff 'n Trash™ if it's that substantial?

Some light reading is just that: a nice read, good elements all around, but instantly forgettable — or at least not enough substance or detail to stick with this reader for very long afterward. These can be very good books, but not the kind about which you could speak at length, or write a term paper.

However, the Lytton trilogy is so much more.

It's complex character development, sweeping sagas, war and sacrifice, drama and tension. I can't put it down until I know certain things about the characters.

I speculate with Carole about what I think will happen next. (I have to admit that the author has thrown some great curve balls at the readers, and I'm thrilled. Usually I can anticipate a storyline — but with Vincenzi, not always so much, or even so completely.)

I worry about the characters: poor Izzy (and what a terrible nickname!), poor Barty, poor Giles (though after a while I worry that I will abandon my sad tone when saying "poor Giles"). I cringe when reading about Celia's foray into politics, or Sebastian's temper regarding one child in particular, or Helena's observations about her husband's career.

Granted, there's all the stuff of Fluff 'n Trash ™ — romance and affairs, unplanned pregnancies galore, abandonment, death, society gossip, use of the word "Mummy" that sounds alien to my American ears. There's also common sense from the least likely characters, vast country estates and quite a bit of tea. There's unimaginable amounts of wealth that provide a certain amount of independence — or does it?

So, does something with substance count as light reading? Does the fact that something is a quick read make it a light read as well? What do you think?

And if you've read the Lytton trilogy, chime in. But no spoilers, please — not even with warnings!


Leeway Cottage and Good-Bye and Amen - Discussion by Carole and Chris

Chris and I don't always have the same taste in books (how boring would that be?), and we don't always agree on the books we read to discuss. Many a time either she has passed a book along to me to see if I could get any enjoyment out of it (The Dante Club and Rule of Four come to mind) when she couldn't or I've passed back a book that she's included in her bag o' books for me with a "Uh-uh. I tried, but can't get through it".

Why mention all of this here and now? Well, Chris and I had exactly the same reactions to Beth Gutcheon's Leeway Cottage and Good-Bye and Amen. What were they? In a nutshell, we lovedlovedloved Leeway Cottage and that is what saved us from thoroughly disliking Good-Bye and Amen. If we had read Good-Bye and Amen on its own, we would not have liked it or understood it.

Let me back up a bit. The story of Leeway Cottage is essentially the story of Sydney Brant. The book spans her lifetime, but we are introduced to so many family members from different generations to cast this as a multigenerational novel. The family summers in Maine provide a constant in the quickly changing world--the events of World War II have far-reaching and long-lasting effects on Sydney's family. Gutcheon weaves true elements, such as the heroic efforts of the Danes to save the Jews in their country and the role British intelligence played in those efforts, with the fictitious, such as Sydney's husband's family, which would never be the same after what they endured at the hands of the Nazis. Those events colored Sydney's relationships with her husband, her in-laws, and even her children in ways in which Sydney was never even aware. But we were.

Chris and I talked a great deal about what an interesting, and not always likable, character Sydney was. She had a horrible relationship with her own mother, which affected her relationships with her own children. I liked that she wasn't always likable--it made her more real. To hear her grown grandchildren talk about how awful she was to them, though, made me wince.

We both liked Gutcheon's writing style in Leeway Cottage and eagerly devoured it and moved on to its sequel, Good-Bye and Amen. What a puzzle to learn that it is written in a completely different style from the first book. Rather than a narrative, it is written as a series of journal entries by many, many characters, most of them familiar from the first book.

We were baffled as to why Gutcheon chose to do this. What was the motivation to switch styles? Chris thinks that the author became so attached to her characters that she felt she had to write this to stay connected to them. When I was reading it and discovering that one of the characters we heard from periodically was actually dead, I thought that we were actually going to get a glimpse into a continuation of Sydney's life from someone who knew her then and now. But that didn't actually happen in the book, so I'm not sure why we were given that information.

An extensive biography of each character ever mentioned is provided in the back of the book, along with photos tagged with the characters' names. Huh? Is this fiction or a true story? I still don't know. If it's true, then whose story is it really? If it's fiction, did the author just use some old photos and say these are her characters? If so, why? We couldn't come to any real conclusions. Their inclusion raised more questions than they answered.

Chris and I enjoyed reading both books, and Leeway Cottage stands alone beautifully. We agreed that if we had come upon Good-Bye and Amen and read it first, we would have been bewildered. The deftness with which she wove the original story, however, will keep Gutcheon on our list of authors to watch.


Unaccustomed Earth — Review by Chris

Jhumpa Lahiri knows how to communicate. She's not just — as if one can be "just" — a short story writer or a novelist. She is a communicator.

Take her latest: Unaccustomed Earth, a collection of short stories. In it, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author shares with us the life and inner workings of Bengali men and women and the people around them. Each character is carefully drawn and, to the reader, is a distinct individual. Lahiri has an affection for each of them, allows us into their lives with such intimacy I am overwhelmed and grateful time and again. Her language is precise and generous, and by no means unfair nor ambiguous. Her characters have their faults and foibles as well as their strengths and charms, deep and clear. She does not criticize them, but lets their stories make or break their cases.

In earlier books, Lahiri's characters precariously straddled the life between Bengali and American culture — bound to one but striving for the other. However, in this book, the characters have come to terms with this dichotomy, accepting the implied hyphen that keeps them in both camps with simultaneous magnetism. It isn't easier for these people, but the struggle has changed: from trying to find a place in the world to living within the boundaries of their territory.

The book is divided into two sections, the second of which involves the intertwined lives of Hema and Kaushik. I read the stories in order, but you needn't do that with the first section. The second section, however, you must read in order. All stories in this collection are varied and rich in detail.

Ruma is torn between life with her American husband and her expectations as a Bengali daughter. Her mother died unexpectedly and her father now travels the world by himself. Ruma thinks her father lonesome and abandoned. Her father, however, feels nothing of the sort. The story tells both Ruma's and her father's perspective of the same situation. As a daughter myself, it was lovely to see how both father and daughter held on to their strong — and wrong — expectations.

Sudha gave her baby brother Rahul his first beer when she was in college, helped him buy his stash and hide it when she would come home during school breaks — then watched, with a growing understanding and horror, as he continued down the slippery slope of alcoholism.

Sang has a boyfriend and Anglo roommates. She also has an unending line of potential husbands (Bengali, of course). She is a good catch: well-educated, a good daughter, of good moral character. She, however, has a boyfriend: Freddy/Farouk, who has, for the three years they have been together, spoken of the future in broad terms. However, things change when her male roommate, Paul, answers the phone one lonely evening.

Many vignettes stopped my heart as I read them. One in particular was about Kaushik, who met his new stepsisters and their mother one college break. His own mother had been dead for years, but he didn't discover the depth of his loss until bleak winter night — and his fury against two young children was so hot and violent it scared me to read it.

Another was the slow terrible realization of Neel's plight one evening. Could his uncle be as reliable as he appeared all week, while under the watchful eye of his suspicious sister and unaware brother-in-law? The gnawing doubt culminated in a terrible brief scene with details and images that brought tears to my eyes — it still gives me chills when I think about it, the subtlety, the devil in the details. Lahiri makes the tragedy and the joy immediate and deliberate.

Do yourself a favor: go out and pick up all three of Lahiri's works (including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies and her sole published novel to date, The Namesake). Then pace yourself if you can. Once I finished a story or chapter, I found myself unable to resist reading the first few lines of the next part — which sucked me in for another indeterminate period of time. I never experienced Author Fatigue from Lahiri; unlike other authors, I did not feel a rut in style, rhythm or characters. If you picked them up at the library, which I always recommend, you will then want them for your permanent collection. Then you will wait hungrily for her next work.

I enjoyed this collection immensely and highly recommend it. Please let me know when you read her work. You will be glad you did.