Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Can you imagine a writer picking out a random shelf of books in a New York library, spending over a year to read them, and then writing a book about the experience ? Crazy idea, isn’t it ? And, yet author Phyllis Rose did exactly that. Realizing that we usually choose our reading from a list recommended by reviewers, librarians, teachers etc, she decided to select her reading almost blindly. She did set herself some ground rules : A mix of contemporary and older works, at least one of which had to be a classic. Several authors on the shelf, none of whom she had previously read. And, at most, one author represented by five or more books, of which she would read no more than three.
These were difficult criteria to meet but after surveying over 200 shelves( out of 1,350) at the New York Society Library on E.79th Street in NYC, she settled on the LEQ – LES shelf. The book she wrote is The Shelf, Adventures in Extreme Reading.
Who would want to read a book about Reading? Crazy, isn’t it ?
I thought so, too particularly when I saw that the list of authors on the shelf included William le Queux, Rhoda Lerman, Mikhail Lermontov, Lisa Lerner ,Alexander Lernet- Holenia, Etienne Leroux, Gaston Leroux, James le Rossignol. Margaret Leroy, Alain-Rene Le Sage and John Lescroart. Not exactly household names even if some of them were famous in their day. For me, the only familiar name amongst them was John Lescroart, a dozen of whose mysteries- legal thrillers I have read. I got The Shelf just to satisfy my curiosity, certain that I would dump it after I’d read a small part of it.
Want to know something crazy? I read the book from cover to cover and loved it.
Had this book only been a writer’s opinions about the books she read, I would not have gotten very far before throwing in the towel .However, it is much more than that. Much, much more.
Phyllis Rose is nothing if not thorough. The first book on the shelf she read was One for the Devil(1968), by Etienne Leroux, an obscure South African author writing in Afrikaans. Though she didn’t like it , she skimmed through another book in the trilogy, read about the author on various sources and even saw a Youtube video clip of his long ago funeral. The second book, A Hero of Our Time by Lermontov she read in four different translations, including one by Vladimir Nabakov and his son , Dimitri. The Nabakov translation is replete with explanatory footnotes running down the book being translated, and Rose comments acidly how ” one writer swallows and ingests another in order to create himself”.
I had thrilled to The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway but I did not know that it was based on a novel by Gaston Leroux. Rose reads two of Leroux’s detective novels ( terrible) and then goes into great detail about the author and the genesis of Phantom. There are details about the construction of the Paris Opera House where the action takes place, a discussion of the 1925 silent film classic starring Lon Chaney ( imagine that: a silent film about the power of music !) and about the enduring fascination with the Phantom theme. Rose points out the similarities with George du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby ( about the hypnotist, Svengali who hypnotizes a young girl and turns her into a great singer) and the popular Gothic fiction of that time including Dracula. Interesting stuff.
To be frank, I would not want to read the books that Rose did. I have no interest in Austrian writers even if one of them( Jelinek) did win the Nobel Prize for literature in 2004.Neither would I care to read books by Lisa Lerner or Margaret Leroy, good though they might be. The only book that might interest me is Gil Blas, the picaresque 18th century novel by Alain – Rene Le Sage but, at 758 pages, it is too long for me.
What does interest me are Rose’s digressions on book related matters, authors and libraries. Among them : Why there are comparatively few women writers. The difficulties that women writers face. Regionalism and Realism. Womens fiction as opposed to ” Real Literature”. And how libraries decided which books to discard. It is a complex process depending on the date it was last published, when it was last taken out by a patron and six other factors, As a library report states (” .. it can take much longer to select a book for withdrawal than to select it for purchase”.)
Reading Phyllis Rose’s modus operandi for her extreme reading made feel envious of her perspicacity and the depth of her knowledge even as it made feel ashamed of my slapdash approach to books. I read for enjoyment and my choice of books is , well … eclectic. I go to the library and prowl the stacks looking for titles and subjects that interest me. In a way, it is as random as can be. Mostly detective/ mysteries/thrillers, some non-fiction on a grab bag of topics, a few biographies and some history. Very often, I discard a book that ceases to interest and I rarely spend more than a week on a book. Right now, I am reading Second Wind by a gerontologist, Dr. Bill Phillips, about leading a slower, deeper, more connected life. It’s taking him a long time to get to the point and I may or may not finish it. I am also dipping into You Must Remember This ,an oral history of Manhattan compiled by Jeff Kisseloff.(Terrific). Next up are two South African mysteries by a young South African writer, Malla Nunn. All these far removed from what Phyllis Rose might read but, hey, we’re all different.
Do try The Shelf. I think you’ll find it well worth reading.
P.S. I was disappointed to find that Ms. Rose did not care for the John Lescroart mysteries. Ah well, different strokes for different folks.

Read Full Post »

The Triple Package

Why some people are more successful than others has always been a matter of great interest to many of us. In The Triple Package, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld explore the cultural traits that explain the outsize success of certain cultural groups in America. Chua and Rubenfeld, both law professors at Yale, are married to each other. They have also written several other books individually and Chua is probably best known for her controversial best-seller, Battle Hymn of the Tiger mother.

The Triple Package refers to three traits which the authors believe are responsible for the disproportionate success of groups such as Mormons, Jews and immigrants from China, India , Nigeria , Iran, and Lebanon. They identify the traits as a superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control. The first two might seem contradictory to each other but Chua and Rubenfeld make a good case for their premise.

They postulate that members of these groups feel superior to others either because their religion has always taught them so or because they came from privileged circumstances in the countries of their origin. In America, shorn of reasons to feel superior, they work harder to regain their cachet while suppressing their feelings of insecurity vis-a vis their more settled neighbors. Impulse control is an essential attribute for success because it enables people to defer gratification as they strive mightily to get ahead. Even as these traits lead to success, they can also be the cause of future heartache. Superiority can lead to arrogance, insecurity to neuroticism and impulse control carried to extremes may prevent the enjoyment of success. Another negative is that Triple Package cultures focus on material, conventional success and prestige and close off other paths of achievement. There is a telling anecdote about the Taiwanese- American filmmaker Ang Lee whose father had wanted him to become a businessman. When Lee won an Oscar, his father told him there was still time.” You’re only 49″, the father said. ” Get a degree, teach in universities and be respectable.”

Perhaps the most perceptive part of The Triple Package is that American society dilutes and ultimately destroys the traits that lead to the success of Triple Package cultures. As these groups assimilate with the American mainstream, they lose the very attributes that made them successful. Taught that all people are equal, they lose their superiority complex. As they taste success they become secure and less capable of delaying gratification.

The premise of the book is fascinating and it has several interesting sidelights. I knew of the successes of Jews and Asian Americans but not that of the other groups. The Mormons have always been a low key group and it took me by surprise to read that, even with far fewer adherents, the Mormon Church is three or four times as rich as the Catholic Church in America. I didn’t know either that Nigerians- Americans account for the great majority of black Americans admitted to Harvard and that they are prominent in medicine and law.

Other issues The Triple Package touches upon: that success cannot be traced to “education cultures”, “family values” or ” thrifty cultures”. That America was for a long time a Triple Package nation but that this has changed in the last 50 years. That blacks are hurt by negative perceptions and low expectations rather than the lack of the Triple Package. The dynamics of Jewish families. That Appalachia does not have a Triple Package culture but its problems are due to geography, history and the ” resource curse”.

The Triple Package is a well written, well researched book and I found myself nodding in recognition as I turned its pages. There were two points, however, where I found myself in disagreement. In trying to refute the idea that Jewish success is because it is a ” learning culture”, the authors put forward the example of ultra-orthodox Satmar Jews who are yet one of the poorest groups in the nation. However, this is a specious example because the Satmar community dedicates itself to Talmudic study to the exclusion of everything else; this is hardly a foundation for academic success. It also seemed to me that the authors were on the wrong track when they write about the importance of caste in present day Indian society.

The Triple Package tackles a complex subject and it could have been a difficult read. Thanks to original research, groundbreaking statistics and lively anecdotes it is exactly the opposite… a book that is difficult to put down. Highly recommended.

The Triple Package. Amy Chua and Jeb Rosenfeld. The Penguin Press (N.Y) 2014.

Read Full Post »

Dan Jenkins, the Hall of Fame sportswriter, is familiar to readers of Sports Illustrated and Golf Digest. He is also the author of several novels about football and golf, the best known of which is Semi Tough which was made into a movie starring Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson. Now in his eighty-fifth year, Jenkins has written His Own Self, a book he calls a semi-memoir. I suppose that’s because it dwells as much on sports figures he has met and written about as on the details of his own life. It is an interesting book about an interesting life.

In brief, Jenkins was born in 1929 in Fort Worth, Texas to an entrepreneurial mother and a father who soon skipped town. He was brought up mostly by his grandparents and assorted aunts and seems to have an idyllic childhood even through the Depression years. He attended Paschal High where he lettered in golf and basketball and wrote for the school newspaper, the Pantherette. One of Jenkins’ articles caught the eye of the sports writer at the local paper, the Fort Worth Press, and he had a job even before he graduated high school. He continued to work there all through college, was picked up by Sports Illustrated magazine in the mid -fifties, and continued to do so even after the success of his first novel Semi-Tough. It seems to have been a charmed life, doing the work he loved, covering golf, football and the Olympics, living in Manhattan and becoming a habitue of Elaine’s, P.J. Clarke’s and Toots Shor’s when he was not jetting off to Europe. Forgive me if I sound a little envious.

In his novels, Jenkins created the persona of Jim Tom Pinch, the chain-smoking, hard-drinking, hard partying sports writer at the mythical Fort Worth Light and Shopper. Jenkins seems to have modeled the character on himself because he shares many of the attributes of Jim Tom Pinch. The book is breezy with nice touches of humor. For instance, he describes sitting in church at age seven, listening to a fire and brimstone preacher and thinking that “…burning in hell for an eternity sounded like rather harsh punishment for somebody who’d done nothing worse than to refuse to eat liver.”

The best parts of Jenkins’ book are those where he writes about golf and the golfing titans whom he covered, befriended and sometimes played with. This is a man who once played a round (for $2 a hole) with the great Babe Didrikson Zaharias, and was offered free golf lessons by Ben Hogan. My favorite parts of Jenkins’ book are when he writes about Hogan and his incredible comeback in 1950 after a near fatal traffic accident ,and Arnold Palmer’s never to be forgotten final round at the Masters in 1960. It gave me chills to read about how Arnie came from seven strokes behind and overtook 14 others to claim the green jacket. I’m not a big golf fan but after reading that chapter I resolved to read about those magic years when Hogan, Palmer and Nicklaus were all on the golf course at the same time.

Jenkins doesn’t write only about golf. There’s a lot about college football, particularly about the Horned Frogs of TCU, and stories about Slinging Sammy Baugh, Doak Walker and Bobby Layne and a host of others in the college and pro ranks. Good stuff.

There are some parts of the book I did not care for, those where Jenkins gives us his political views. He is of course entitled to write about them but I didn’t enjoy reading about ” … Fox news, the only news program that doesn’t seem to hate America”. That I thought was a bit too much. There is also a whole chapter about the six presidents that he has met and about playing golf with George W. Bush. Good for him, but not interesting to me.

His Own Self has its good points and is a fun read but, in the end, it left me a little disappointed. It’s like eating a lemon meringue pie; delicious but you wouldn’t want to make a meal of it.

His Own Self. Dan Jenkins ( Doubleday, 2014).

Read Full Post »

One thing you might have noticed about NFL quarterbacks is that so many of them come from small , even obscure, colleges. Phil Simms came to the Giants from Morehead State, Tony Romo attended Eastern Illinois and there are others from small college programs such as East Carolina, Marshall, Delaware etc. For all the domination of college football by perennial powers such as Alabama, Ohio State and USC there are few NFL quarterbacks who can claim any of them as an alma mater. There are reasons for that, ESPN radio talk show host Colin Cowherd tells us in his book You Herd Me!.

Cowherd points out the top fifteen college football programs in America have contributed only six QBs in the thirty-two team NFL, and half of those six are barely hanging in there. An even more telling statistic: the tiny University of Delaware has produced two Super Bowl winning QBs( Rich Gannon and Joe Flacco)- the same number as perennial powerhouse Notre Dame.

Cowherd’s reasoning is as follows: 1) College players can practice only for a limited number of hours because of NCAA regulations and the demands of schoolwork. Thus, the more talented shine in college but , at the pro level, talent becomes less important while work ethic, study habits and intellectual dexterity become more crucial. Elite talents with questionable work ethic( remember Ryan Leaf, Jamarcus Russell, Jeff George) fall by the wayside while hard workers prosper.2) A key ingredient in a NFL QB’s success is toughness. Big school stars usually have the luxury of operating behind a top-notch offensive line. They also have the support of a good running game and the best HS tight ends and receivers. Conversely, QB’s at smaller schools have to play with mediocre talent and as a result develop improvisational skills, resilience and toughness… all requisites for the pro game. 3) Psychologically, the small college players are more motivated to succeed because they are fighting to survive from Day one in training camp. They also play with a chip on their shoulder.

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Cowherd’s book covers a variety of topics from Tiger Woods, Jerry Tarkanian, work-life balance, X-games, drinking in the stands, drafting for value not need, LeBron James unpopularity etc. Towards the end of the book, Cowherd quotes Frank Rich on how an opinion maker is sometimes forced into articulating stronger opinions than he actually has. This of course applies to sports talk show hosts and no one can accuse Cowherd of being wishy-washy. He has strong opinions on every topic and while you may not agree with him all the time , they are definitely thought-provoking and worth a read. For instance, he claims that character ( which results from a good family background) is only important in two positions, quarterback and point guard, because those two are leadership positions; the rest don’t matter. I’ll have to think about that one.

You Herd Me! I’ll Say It If Nobody Else Will. Colin Cowherd.( Crown, 2013)

Read Full Post »

In the fifties and sixties, haute cuisine in America meant French food. Food writers such as MFK Fisher, James Beard and Julia Child had been extolling the glories of French cuisine for decades and the public was sold on it.

Then there was a sudden change.

Beginning in the early seventies, these same food mavens turned away from French cuisine and began writing about a simpler, more eclectic cuisine. Over the next few years, it evolved into what may be termed American Cuisine, a cuisine that in the hands of acolytes such as Alice Waters stressed fresh local ingredients simply prepared. It was a complete departure from the elaborate French dishes of the past. What happened ? What caused this sea change ? These are the questions that Luke Barr attempts to address in his marvelous new book, Provence 1970.

According to Barr, whose grandmother Norah was MFK Fisher’s sister, the seeds for this food revolution were sown at a chance confluence of several of these food icons in Provence in November – December of 1970. MFK Fisher was there with her sister on one of her frequent trips to France. Julia Child and her husband Paul were there too , living in La Pitchoune, a house they had constructed on the property of Simone Beck, Julia’s co-author of Mastering the Art of French Cuisine. James Beard was there at a local diet spa trying to shed some of his 300 pounds and to mitigate his health problems. Near La Pitchoune there also lived Sybil Bedford and Eda lord, the former a writer who considered herself an expert on French cuisine. They met frequently for gourmet dinners at each others’ houses and the talk was always about food and wine. French food and wine, of course. Towards Christmas, they were often joined by Richard Olney , author of Simple French Food, and Judith Jones the literary super-agent.

If you thought that these experts had a meeting of the minds that resulted in new directions for food and cooking in America, you would be mistaken. Quite the opposite. Bedford seems to have been a thoroughly unpleasant sort who considered herself an expert on all things French. She was snobbish, judgmental and had a particular animus against Americans. She got on the nerves of MFK and Julia who were on the receiving end of her put downs. Beford found a kindred spirit in Richard Olney who was jealous of the fame of MFK, Beard and Child. Child herself was having her problems with her co-author, Simone Beck, who resented playing second fiddle to her; they were to dissolve their collaboration within the next few months. All these petty jealousies and undercurrents made for an unpleasant time and caused those present to re-evaluate their pre-occupation with French cuisine.

In writing this book, Luke Barr was able to draw upon the journals of his great-aunt MFK Fisher and consult with is grandmother Norah who was in her nineties. As part of his research,he went to Provence , staying in La Pitchoune and visiting several of his grandmother’s haunts. Having steeped himself in the atmosphere of those times, he writes sensitively and authoritatively about these disparate characters and their interactions. MFK seems to have kept detailed notes because we are treated to wonderful descriptions of the food and the conversations that she was a part of. The result is a book that could have been written by Fisher herself, since we see everything through her eyes.

It is a book that appeals to the reader at many levels. For travel buffs and Francophiles, it brings back memories of a France that is long gone. For foodies, it describes an important moment in food lore, a moment when we turned away from French cuisine and began instead to look closer to home at the same time as we began to develop a more eclectic view of Cuisine. It also offers an unvarnished view of the food icons of the day. Reading it, I developed a greater appreciation for the down to earth Julia Child and for James Beard even as I took a dislike to the prickly Richard Olney and the pretentious Sybil Bedford, a bully if ever there was one. Of course, I realize that my feelings are based on what MFK Fisher felt about these personalities as reported by Luke Barr but I’m willing to trust her opinions. In fact, I’m thinking of going back and re-reading some of her books. You may or may not want to do that but you should read Provence 1970. You will enjoy it.

Provence 1970. M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard and the Reinvention of American Taste. Luke Barr. Published by Clarkson Potter Publishing House. 2013.

Read Full Post »

A Diarrhea of Words

Have you noticed how many writers, later in their careers, have less to write about but need more words to do it in ?  I wouldn’t say his happens with every writer but it happens often enough for me to have noticed it. A good example is James D. Doss, the author of the Charlie Moon mysteries. The charm of these books lay in the author’s asides and the way in which the different characters articulated their thoughts. Particularly funny was Daisy Perika, Charlie Moon’s ancient aunt, a curmudgeonly, irascible, cunning yet lovable sort who carried on conversations with an imaginary goblin type creature called the pintukupf. However, towards the end of Doss’ writing career, the strength of the Charlie Moon books became their weakness. The author’s ratiocinations and the characters musings became longer and longer until they took over the book. The last novel in the series, The Old Gray Wolf, written just before Doss passed away, was practically unreadable.

I’ve noticed the same thing with several other authors, among them Tom Clancy, W.E.B. Griffin, Robert D. Parker , Stuart Woods and  P.C. Doherty. It is perfectly understandable because it is very, very difficult to come up with fresh ideas after a while. Some, who are authoring a series of novels about a central character, stick to a formula that they know will be successful with their devoted readers. A good example is John D. McDonald, the creator of the Travis McGee series about the laidback Florida adventurer who lives on a houseboat, The Busted Flush, and makes a career out of rescuing damsels in distress and keeping a percentage of the money he recovers. Each novel ends with McGee sailing off into the sunset with the rescued fair maiden, nursing her back to full recovery by bedding her frequently. This theme no doubt struck a chord with readers , especially male readers, who made McDonald one of the best selling authors in the seventies and eighties.

Without this strategy, what else can authors do when they run short of ideas? One device is to make the books appear longer than they are by including a lot of dialogue which results in fewer words per page and more pages , thicker books. In Doss’ case, he fluffs up his book by having his characters think out aloud, at length.

There are some authors who are able to maintain the quality of their books to the end of their writing careers. One of them was Jon Cleary(1917-2010) , the Australian author of the Scobie Malone mysteries set in Sydney, who was active well into his late eighties. There aren’t too many like him.

Read Full Post »

For most Americans, the Second World War ended with the surrender of first Germany and then Japan. The GIs who had fought in Europe headed back home to their families and began to rebuild their lives.As a result, every book about WWII that I had seen or read dealt with the wartime effort, the actual fighting or with how the nation joyfully celebrated the end of the war. None dealt with postwar Europe.
In Europe, the situation was very different. The period after the Axis surrender was scarcely different from the worst days of the war. Simmering hatreds surfaced resulting in massacres and atrocities of a scale and ferocity unimaginable to us in America.
In the introduction to his book Savage Continent , Keith Lowe paints a terrifying picture of this ” world where borders between countries seem to have dissolved , leaving a single , endless landscape over which people travel in search of communities that no longer exist, There are no governments any more…no schools or libraries or archives, no access to information whatsoever. There is no cinema or theater…no one has seen a newspaper for weeks. There are no railways or motor vehicles, no telephones or telegrams, no post office, no communication at all except what is passed through word of mouth. There are no banks …no shops … no tools .. no food .”
All of us are familiar with the figure of 6 million , the number of Jews killed during the WWII era. However , authorities put the total number of people who died in Europe as a direct result of WW II at 35 to 40 million, a figure that is almost incomprehensible. Germany lost 6 million and the Soviet Union 27 million people. The accompanying physical destruction was on a similar scale and the anarchy and famine that followed saw men act worse than beasts. Unsurprisingly, it is the weakest segments of the population, the women and the children, who suffered the most. It is heart rending to read what happened to them. After giving us the overall picture, Lowe tells us about the post war happenings in individual countries. This is what gives the book its value because this enables us to understand what happened subsequently in Poland, in the Ukraine, in Greece, the Balkans, the Baltic countries and in the Eastern bloc.

The German defeat unleashed a number of different forces. Overnight, tables were turned as oppressors became the oppressed. The Soviet troops who crossed into Germany were fueled by a thirst for vengeance that led them to commit unspeakable atrocities on German civilians. As German concentration camps were liberated, they were used to house Germans , both POWs and civilians, and the treatment meted out to them was scarcely any different. Similarly, the millions of slave laborers who were set free marauded through Germany as they made their way home. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration ( UNRRA) did yeoman work but it was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task and a scarcity of resources.

Prior to the war, many countries had diverse populations with sizable minorities. As Germany expanded , borders were redrawn and there were forced large scale migrations of ethnic minorities along with corresponding German settlement. After the war , borders were redrawn again and those who had been displaced or conquered took their revenge . This resulted in a protracted ethnic cleansing in Poland and the Ukraine. Jews had it the worst of all as they suffered first at the hands of the Nazis and then, when they returned to their former homes , at the hands of those who had taken over their properties.

In Italy and France, it was class hatreds rather than ethnic tensions that resulted in unrest. Landless peasants, unwilling to return to the pre-war status quo, revolted against landowners and tried to take over farms. In this, they were aided by the Communist party but the uprisings were put down with relatively small loss of life. In Greece however, the ineffectual post war British presence was unable to prevent the situation from degenerating into a long lasting civil war.

It was Eastern Europe that suffered the most after the war ended. Horse trading among the Allies had resulted in agreements about spheres of influence . The Soviets quickly used their armed might to overthrow legitimate
governments and install their own puppet governments in Romania , in Hungary ,in Czechoslovakia and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. They did this with a cold blooded thoroughness and disregard for human life that mirrored the worst excesses of the Nazis. The United States and Britain were forced to stand by impotently , unwilling to risk all-out war with the Soviets.

Some of the worst violence occurred in Yugoslavia where Serbs , Croats and Muslims massacred each other with abandon encouraged by their German and Italian occupiers. The horrors intensified after the German defeat, as Tito and his Partisans brutally subjugated the different factions and established his rule.

Keith Lowe does a masterful job of describing the complex events , keeping the different strands separate so that we can grasp the whole picture. Mere statistics cannot convey the extent of the horror so he sprinkles in some individual stories. Thankfully, he only includes only a few relatively innocuous photographs. I don’t think I could stand to see anything more explicit. This is a difficult book to read. There were almost no innocents in this situation ( except for the women and children) as different segments of the population took it out on each other driven by a need for vengeance that resulted in an unending cycle of savagery. One cannot believe that human beings could act like this.

Nevertheless, this is an important book because it helps us understand many realities, among them Why Kosovo happened , why Communism became such an anathema in post war America, Stalinist brutality and many other things. It also makes one wonder about the future. Because of ethnic cleansing during the war , the countries of postwar Europe had populations that were almost homogenous. Yet today, because of the European Union and because of migration not only between European countries but from Asia and the Middle East , Europe is more diversified than ever. What does this bode for the future ?
All in all , this is a book well worth reading for anyone interested in European history and the Europe of today.

Savage Continent : Europe in the aftermath of Word War II . Keith Lowe . St. Martin’s Press. $ 20.

Read Full Post »

We will be moving later this year after 21 years in the same house , 41 years in the same town (Edison , NJ). It is  only a short move,  to an active adult development 18 miles away , but it means a lot of possessions have to be winnowed out. We simply can’t take them all with us ; some will be  given away and others junked. Among the things to be trimmed  is my collection of books . I won’t call it my personal library ; that’s too grand a name for what I’ve accumulated.

I am an inveterate reader but I’m not one of those who rushes out and buys a  book every time one strikes my fancy. It doesn’t make sense to me to spend $ 25 or more for something that I will read only once . Instead , I borrow books from the public library . In addition to frequenting the Edison library , I have bought a membership at the  Woodbridge public library which is larger than ours and has several branches besides. This constitutes most of my  reading material though I supplement it with books that I buy on sale at Barnes and Noble , through Amazon and at the library. The only books I pay the full price for are those that I know I will refer to or read over and over . These are generally biographies or  books on cooking , spirituality , bridge or travel.

Over the years , the number of books that I own has mounted . When I began the weeding process , I must have had close to a thousand books , a mixture of hard covers, trade paperbacks and paperbacks.  I don’t care what they look like or how handsome they are. It’s what is between the covers that matters.

At the start of the process, I thought it would be  very difficult  but , almost immediately , I realized that there were some books that I hadn’t touched in years , others that I’d never read . One buys books with the idea that one will read them but puts off reading them to read the library books that have to be returned . The same is true of magazines which , if one doesn’t read them immediately , go to the  bottom shelf or, worse,  the garage.

Just asking myself the question ” Will I ever read this book  again ?” was tremendously liberating . All of a sudden , it became easier to part with them. Note that I said “easier”, not “easy”. It’s still a wrench , but it’s doable.

Another thought that helped was that books deserve to be read , not hoarded. Of the 200 or so cookbooks that I had , I have given about half of them to a friend who loves cooking and cookbooks . I know they’ve found a good home and I intend to give away some more. I’ve also donated a lot of books to the library . It has a sale table for such donations and prices them at $ 1 to $ 4 apiece and they are snapped up by booklovers .

Before I’m done , I expect to reduce my book collection to about 350-400 and , from  now on , I think I will comb them annually and  give away what I know I’ll never read again.

So… what are the books that I will keep?

Most are books that I refer to again and again . In the case of the cookbooks ,there are those that we cook from and others that I just like to read . It’s the second group that will be heavily pruned. There are some books that I will keep for sentimental reasons . The Parent’s Assistant , a book of teaching stories that used to belong to my grandmother and that is almost a hundred years old. A copy of Les Miserables which my wife won as a prize for being the best student when she was in college more than 40 years ago. A book of  Grimm’s Fairy tales from my childhood. A travel book ” In Search of England”( ed 1931) by H.V. Morton which my friend Eric gave me just before  he passed away.  And a few others.

It is not going to be an easy task , getting rid of these books , but at the end of it there will be a sense of accomplishment. And I will feel lighter , much like losing a few pounds after going on a diet. That’s another thing that I have to do ( sigh).


Read Full Post »

I had heard about Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs when it first came out. Those of my friends who read it gave it rave reviews but I didn’t think I wanted to read a 571 page book about a tech titan . Recently ,however, my nephew gave  me his copy to read and I quickly found myself hooked . Steve Jobs was a fascinating character and this book is an in-depth look at the man , warts and all.

The biographer , Walter Isaacson, is a respected journalist who  served as editor of TIME magazine and  has previously written biographies of Benjamin Franklin , Einstein and Kissinger but this life of Jobs must rank as his masterpiece. Jobs had approached him about writing this biography but , it was only in 2009 when Jobs’ cancer had spread , that Isaacson took up the project.

Jobs promised full co-operation, pledged not to interfere , and did not seek any control over what was written .  In writing this book , Isaacson had unlimited access to Jobs and extensively interviewed his colleagues , competitors , friends and adversaries . What emerges ia a picture of a driven man with the single-minded focus to create a company at the crossroads of humanities and science which would live on after him. In the pursuit of his vision , Jobs drove his employees relentlessly and was ruthless in his business dealings . It is not a flattering picture.

Prior to reading this book , all I knew about Jobs was that along, with Steve Wozniak , he had created Apple , been fired , started NeXT Computer , hit a home-run with Pixar , re-joined Apple and led it to a string of successes that included the iPod, iMac , iPhone and iPad. I also knew that Jobs and Apple were at loggerheads with Bill Gates and Microsoft and that Apple was the rebel upstart challenging Microsoft’s dominance of the computer market . These are only the bare bones of the Jobs story and Isaacson’s book fleshed them out admirably.

The book begins with Jobs’ parents adopting a baby boy born to  Joanne Scieble and Abdulfattah ” John ” Jandali , two grad students at the University of Wisconsin.  It goes on to describe his childhood love of electronics , his friendship with electronics whiz-kid Steve Wozniak  and their early escapades . It details  how  Jobs dropped out of Reed College , traveled to India to meet his guru, then came back to start Apple I with Wozniak.  Then follow Apple II , Jobs’ expulsion from the company he co-founded, the years in the wilderness , the triumphant return and Apple’s ascent to the pinnacle of success.

All of this is hugely interesting but what is fascinating is the picture  of Steven Jobs that emerges. Jobs was a supreme visionary whose mantras were   ” Simplicity of design ” and ” User friendly”. To achieve this goal , he bullied his employees and colleagues , hired and fired at will , and was nasty in his dealings with everyone , often unnecessarily so. He forced out Steve Wozniak and , for the flimsiest of reasons, refused stock options to another of his friends , Daniel Kottke, who had been with him since the early days. With his girlfriends ,and later with  his family , he was for the most part distant and neglectful ; only after his cancer had been detected did he mellow a little. He was mean , foul-mouthed, selfish, contrary,had no regard for the feelings of others, often took credit for the discoveries and ideas of his employees and , in general , seemed to believe that the rules did not apply to him . An example : Stopped by a traffic policeman for going 100 mph in a 55 mph zone , he sassed the officer, was warned that a the next speeding infraction would result in jail time ,but waited until the officer was out of sight  and  zoomed away at 100 mph.

It is astonishing that he was forgiven by his victims and commanded their unstinting loyalty in spite of his despicable behavior . They seem to have recognized his  underlying genius and admired him for his single-minded focus and the way he drove them to greater and greater heights.

Jobs was a creature of contradictions . Though deeply influenced by Eastern religions , particularly Zen Buddhism , his behavior was far different from the calm , detached demeanor that one would expect. He does not seem to have been money hungry but yet asked for and exacted large payouts , sometimes after refusing any payments at all. Frightening cold and unforgiving , he was highly emotional and ,not infrequently, burst into tears . Decisive in his actions in the workplace , he dithered for years over furnishing his home because his pursuit of perfection would not allow him to settle for anything less. He didn’t care what others thought of his actions but , late in life , initiated this biography so that others would get the complete picture.

Some of his idiosyncrasies seem to be rooted in the fact that his natural parents gave him up for adoption . He never forgave his biological father for this abandonment and refused to meet him . There is a delicious story about how his natural father was proud of the fact that Steve Jobs had once eaten in the restaurant that he managed , unaware that Jobs was his son .

Another factor might be that his adoptive parents were quick to realize that he was special , a gifted child whom they indulged even at great cost to themselves . One can only speculate that this might have something to do with Jobs tantrums in later life , his insistence on control and his determination to get his own way. Before reading this book , I used to think of Bill Gates as the villain in his dealings with Apple . Now , I think Gates was much more likable than the obnoxious Jobs .

This is not to deny Jobs achievements . As Isaacson puts it , Jobs “.. didn’t invent many things outright , but he was a master at putting together ideas, art and technology in ways that invented the future…. Some leaders push innovations by being good at the big picture. Others do so by  mastering details . Jobs did both , relentlessly. “  This was a man who pioneered personal computers but transformed several other industries including animated movies, the music industry and marketing. What emerges is the picture of a complex , driven man , repellent in his behavior but who attained unimaginable successes in his short life .

This book  is a much more than a biography . It offers a capsule history of Apple and its inner workings and accomplishments . Along the way , we meet a host of  interesting characters : Wozniak , Larry Ellison , John Sculley , Lee Clow, Michael Eisner, Bob Dylan, Jonathan Ive , John Lasseter and others . Some make cameo appearances while others play more important parts in the story of Apple . We also  get a glimpse of how much hard work is behind the devices that we use every day and take for granted. Isaacson’s book is a tour de force that deserves to be read by anyone that uses these devices and wants to know how they evolved and the part that Steve Jobs played in their invention.

Steven Jobs . by Walter Isaacson . Simon and Schuster( 2011)

Read Full Post »

Writers and readers have different ideas on what the optimum length of a book should be. Writers will say that the optimum length is whatever it takes to tell the story or to develop the subject ; readers, however ,will feel that it is a specific page count , a number or a range that varies from reader to reader. More than that number and they lose interest or , more likely, skim rather than read. In some cases, readers may even decide not pass on a book because it is too long. At the same time , if the book is too slim , it doesn’t seem ” serious’ enough.

I began thinking about the optimum length of a book because I’m currently reading Walter Isaacson’s masterful biography of Steve Jobs which weighs in at 571 pages , not including notes. Steve Jobs was a fascinating figure : a complex , driven genius whose life has much to teach us but , a hundred pages into the book , I feel like taking a break . Jobs’ biography is too good a book to skim but I find myself going slower and slower .  I find myself distracted by how many more pages there are. I know that the fault is in myself ; there are too many other books I’m interested in.

As I said , I will finish the Jobs book and I will enjoy it  but there are other books I’ve passed on because of their length. The prime example of such a book is Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. The first Volume ,Path to Power , took up 768 pages and had another 80 pages of Notes . The other volumes are equally long  as is Caro’s earlier book , a biography of Robert Moses.  Caro’s books are the result of exhaustive research and he and his wife Ina , who helps with the research, have devoted their lives to the writing of these books. Last year I  read a lengthy article about Caro in the New Yorker and I was filled with admiration at the thoroughness of his research and the dedication that he brings to his craft. At the same time , I know I’ll never read any of his books ; they are just too long for me .

I understand that a topic such as the life and career of an American President will result in a lengthy book and I can even go along with that argument for non-fiction books in general. I cannot  buy such thinking in the case of fiction. The writer of fiction has more control over his subject matter and I prefer fiction that is tautly written. Many fiction books go on and on, when some judicious editing would have made them more readable.For instance,  I felt that way about the later Harry Potter books , particularly  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows , which would have read better if it had been trimmed by about a hundred pages.

Some fiction writers pad their books to make them longer. I’m not saying this is true of J.K.Rowling but there are several others who are guilty of this ploy. Usually , it is because they are prolific writers who have corralled a loyal readership and are hurrying to publish as many books as they can . This is also true of some older writers who have burnt themselves out and have nothing new to say.

There are two mystery authors who come to mind ( they shall remain nameless here ) who churn out two and sometimes three books a year . They use several tricks to make their books longer and thus more substantial than they are. One stratagem is to use large print. Another is to have the main characters banter with each other in inane , pointless conversations . Yet another is to have the hero tomcat around and fall into bed with many different women , all of them gorgeous and willing; these affairs don’t advance the plot but they do increase the page count. Earlier in their careers , both these authors wrote well and some of their books have even been made into films.  It is only now that they’ve resorted to such tricks to keep the money rolling in.

The optimum length of a book will vary from reader to reader. For me , it is between 275 to 350 pages . The upper limit can be increased by another 50 pages but any book of fiction  over 400 pages  I will probably pass on unless it is extra-ordinarily good.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »

Mr. & Mrs. 55 - Classic Bollywood Revisited!

Two Harvard students relive the magic and music of old Bollywood cinema

Golden Ripples

About Food, Travel, Sports , Books and other fun things

47 Japanese Farms: Japan Through The Eyes of Its Rural Communities -- 47日本の農園

A journey through 47 prefectures to capture the stories of Japan's farmers and rural communities


WordPress.com is the best place for your personal blog or business site.

%d bloggers like this: