A dad and his daughters, loving life in New York City

Tuesday, October 2

The Books of Summer

I always wish I spent more of my day reading, but at least in the summer it feels like bonus book time just comes naturally, especially during those days at the beach (and train rides out to the beach) and family vacations. Anyway, I managed to get through an entirely unimpressive 6.5 books during June, July and August, and here they are...

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
There are several interesting and entertaining ideas in Taleb's study: that most world-altering events (from, say, war in the Middle East to the rise of Google) have been completely unpredictable... what he calls Black Swans; that, after the fact, we tend to pull together circumstances to make said event seem less random (and, hence, reassuringly controllable in the future); that, it follows further, "experts" are really charlatans, since even the most knowledgeable person will be unable to foresee the thing that will cause an organization/company/nation the most harm or good, as the case may be. Unfortunately, Taleb has an off-putting, affected, righteous, cranky style that makes getting through these (often repetitious) 300 or so pages much more of a chore than any book should be, no matter how smart or provocative the ideas therein.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
Honestly, I can't remember the last time I read fully half of a book and then gave up, but that's what happened here. It's not that Pessl's novel is bad; obviously, I wouldn't have sat through 250+ pages if it was. In fact, this is a sharply observed, well-paced, well-written story about a girl named Blue with an unusual, itinerant upbringing who gets taken in by the elite clique at her new, exclusive prep school, and about the strange tragedies that start to befall them all. It all sounds right up my alley... but these people are SO negative toward each other and the world around them, and it just seems like Pessl hates them all, and so never passes up an opportunity for someone to say or think something nasty. It became too mean-spirited for my tastes, and it was getting me depressed, so reluctantly I had to move on.

The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky: A True Story by Ken Dornstein
Although it starts out a little slow and scattered (and, perhaps, clichéd), this memoir of sorts is ultimately an extraordinarily revealing and often quite moving portrait of two brothers: David, exceptionally handsome, an obsessive journal writer, a tormented oddball, killed in the Pan Am Flight 103 explosion over Lockerbie in 1988 at the age of 25; and author Ken, who spent years trying to understand his feelings—for his brother, for his own life and future (does he dare fall in love with brother's ex-girlfriend?), and for what happened in the skies above Scotland. Call it a detective story of emotions. I really enjoyed this book a lot.

The Emporer's Children by Claire Messud
I didn't really get all the excitement generated by Claire Messud's novel about New York City's privileged and hyper-articulate class. Sure, it's smart, filled with ideas, well-observed, and a reasonably propulsive read. But after a while—say, about half-way through the nearly 500 pages—I started caring less and less about what would happen to these inconsiderate, dishonest, self-absorbed people, until the book's ending felt less like a revelation and more like a relief to have them out of my life.

The Places in Between by Rory Stewart
Rory Stewart is totally insane. How else can you explain why this Scottish journalist insisted upon walking across Afghanistan in 2002, mere months after the Taliban had been driven from power, in order to complete his even bigger, even more insane adventure of walking across all of Asia?? Anyway, The Places in Between is Stewart's colorful and lively account of the Afghan leg of his journey (too often slowed down, I must say, with the complex tribal/ethnic history of the region): the by turns jovial, irritating, menacing, frustrating, remarkably benevolent people he met along the way; the loyalty he found from his adopted companion Babur, a giant mastiff that caused a sensation in every village; the bleak yet beautiful landscape that almost killed them more than once. Not nearly the "masterpiece" proclaimed on the cover by the New York Times, but definitely a good read, with plenty of memorable moments.

Look at Me by Jennifer Egan
Initially compelling and slightly creepy but ultimately obvious and surprisingly dated (it's very of-the-2001-moment), Jennifer Egan's novel tells of supermodel Charlotte, getting "old" and on the downswing when a car crash leaves her face shattered... and her rebuilt visage strangely unrecognizable. We also meet a sullen teenage girl with a dangerous secret; her uncle, professor Moose, who checked out from acceptable society years ago after an incident with a bomb in his classroom; and a charismatic, alcoholic private investigator on the trail of a mysterious chameleon named Z. How are they all connected? I wish I could say in ways that are as interesting as the set-up...

The Blind Side by Michael Lewis
There have been no more enjoyable, more intensely satisfying stories in any book I've read this year than Michael Lewis's patient and insightful portrait of Michael Oher, who went from a teenager unable to function in the world—basically illiterate, no fixed home, no identification, didn't know his real name or birthdate—but whose willingness to work, extraordinary physical talents and, most unexpectedly, the love and care of a wealthy, Evangelical, white, conservative family, the Tuohys, transformed him into the most sought-after college football prospect in the country. This is a wonderfully human story: funny, frustrating, touching, inspiring. Excellent stuff. Lewis also puts the story into the larger context of how, in the NFL, the left tackle—Oher's position—has gone from being just another anonymous lineman to one of the league's highest-paid athletes, prized for their massive size, speed, agility and ability to protect their quarterback's blind side.



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