Some mini reviews of books (and one movie) I've had a chance to take in lately. For most items I’ve linked to an online purchase option, but please consider buying from your locally-owned bookseller or visiting your local library first:
Brave (2012), Pixar
I can't say that Brave, Pixar's latest feature film, is anywhere close to my favorite from this studio. It's not that the animation isn't stunning (it is) or that the watching experience isn't enjoyable (it was), and it's certainly great to see a strong female main character whose departure from limiting traditional roles is largely uncompromised. But the world wrought by the story feels somehow smaller and more forgettable than other Pixar adventures. The nuanced and emotionally complex experiences of the characters mostly overcame the awkward dialog and sometimes dragging plot, and in the end it was observing their inner transformations that was most compelling,
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain
After hearing author Susan Cain interviewed on NPR earlier this year, I knew I needed to read this book. Partly because I'm an introvert and do a lot of thinking about what that means for my place in the world, but partly because the interview itself had a tense moment or two where the question arose of whether understanding the introverted personality meant denigrating what it means to be an extrovert. I can say that while Cain does an thorough job of illustrating the ways in which the world might be a little better off if it did a better job of integrating what introverts have to offer (and if introverts did a better job of working to claim their power), this book is not an attack on extroversion or those who find themselves as the life of the party. I found Quiet at once affirming and challenging, and as I read various sections and descriptions aloud to my extroverted partner, we found a lot to talk about. Recommended reading for pretty much anyone who cares to think about how different kinds of people relate, create and recharge.
Bossypants, by Tina Fey
Tina Fey has an interesting life story that is still being written, but I have a feeling she could take a narrative about two snails traveling from one side of a dirt patch to another and tell it in a way that made me guffaw. I grew up watching Saturday Night Live, and so Bossypants is a fascinating look at the behind-the-scenes making of the show and the world of mainstream comedy television in general. And Fey pulls no punches in identifying the various ways in which the entertainment industry, late night comedy in particular, has been a man's world - good on her for challenging that in all the ways she did. A great, funny read.
Freedom(TM), by Daniel Suarez
I reviewed Suarez's first novel, Daemon, last year, calling it "One of the best high-tech thriller novels I’ve read." In Freedom(TM), Suarez crafted yet another "couldn't put it down" reading experience, which seemed perfectly balanced proportions of tech-geekery, geo-political thriller, compelling relational stories and dark tale of warning for our modern times. There aren't many fictional universes that make me go looking for fan fiction writing so that I can keep immersing myself in that world, but I will admit to doing that a few times since reading Daemon and Freedom(TM) (and am waiting in great anticipation of Suarez's next novel, Kill Decision, due out in July). A must read for sysadmins, hackers, anthropologists and apocalyptic visionaries everywhere.
Reamde, by Neal Stephenson
An incredibly fun read. It was epic in scale like many of his other novels, but entirely plot driven, and a page-turner at that. Computer geeks, gun fanatics, online role playing game designers, script kiddies, Russian mobsters, terrorists,secret agents, expert trackers, the nuances of international aviation flight planning and Internet cafes all play a role here, and like in Cryptonomicon or Snow Crash, Stephenson knows how to imagine a world that's brilliant and fanciful without insulting readers who care about the details that also make it authentic.
Million Dollar Consulting by Alan Weiss
Despite its title, which kept conjuring the image of Justin Timberlake asking, "you know what's cooler than a million dollars?" in The Social Network, this was a really useful read for someone like me who makes a living providing, in part, professional technical consulting services. Weiss speaks from demonstrated experience about how to avoid being "just another consultant" and to instead create a practice that lets you do what you do best with maximum understanding between you and your clients and minimal administrative overhead. As you might imagine, a lot of it starts with how well you value yourself and what you do, and then it's mostly about how you leverage that value in a way that your client sees it clearly too. Good advice here.
Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Patterson et al.
If you work with people, or have relationships with people, or have ever found yourself having a conversation with another person, this book is probably worth reading. While disguised as a guide that might be most helpful in the world of business, Crucial Conversations is really about how well we handle the conversations and other interactions in our lives that shape our future. The authors take plenty of time to understand when and why those conversations often can and do go so poorly, but each step of the way they're focused on providing useful tools for changing the course of the exchange in a way that literally might make all the difference in whether you stay employed, friends, married, happy, and so on. It's a book about learning how to get your needs met while helping others do the same, minimizing the pain and misunderstanding along the way.
11/22/63: A Novel, by Stephen King
There are some Stephen King novels that I enjoy because King knows how to write an excellent, gripping story with characters that I think about even when I'm not staring at the pages. There are others I enjoy because the situations and environments are so richly crafted that I just enjoy marveling at his writing technique. This novel, about a man confronted with an opportunity to change history, is both. In addition to being about risk, love, fate and some key points of social and political U.S. history, 11/22/63 places the reader authentically in a time that at once feels like the distant past and also the immediate precursor to a major shift in the present day human experience. King also weaves together some characters and locations from his past novels, almost as a love letter to fans of his work (but not one that would make it inaccessible to first-time King readers).
(I may have had the specter of presidential assassination attempts on my mind when I selected the book The Enemy Within: Crisis In Washington by Noel Hynd as a follow-up read to the King novel. It's about a threat to the present-day president from within the Secret Service, and I can't recommend it for anything other than a fairly mindless passing of time, or as an exercise in seeing how many of the pervasive grammatical and typographical errors - at least in the Kindle edition - you can catch.)
I'm also in the middle of three other books about the American presidency, all of them on President Barack Obama:
The Obamas by Jodi Kantor is a really compelling read, taking the reader inside the personal lives of Obama and his family during the final months of the 2008 election and then during the transition into life as President. Every time I think I might be able to imagine how incredibly difficult, almost futile, it must be to try balancing the inhuman personal and professional expectations placed on the First Family, Kantor has another jaw-dropping story of their adventures.
I don't think I'm going to make it through The Amateur by Edward Klein, since in the opening pages he didn't even attempt to disguise the fact that his interview subjects, supposed experts on the ways in which Barack Obama is ill-equipped to be President, have deep personal baggage and axes to grind that make them far from objective. I was more than willing to entertain the premise of the book, but it was Klein's job to establish his motives as informational or even just patriotic, instead of petty and spiteful, and he failed at that from the outset.
Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power by David E. Sanger on the other hand is shaping up to be a bit more balanced in its approach, as Sanger looks at the decisions and events that have shaped President Obama's foreign and military policy in his first term. There's much to be concerned about in the stories these pages tell, but at least the information seem more broadly sourced. And who doesn't love a good real-life yarn about using software worms to covertly disable nuclear reactors?
Have you read any good books lately?