Book Review: ‘David and Goliath’ by Malcolm Gladwell

March 26, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews

gladwell_david and goliath

Malcolm Gladwell is one massive brain, and he even looks a little like one. He takes interesting ideas, builds a line of argument, and develops the concept into fascinating, easy-to-read books that also happen to be page-turners. His latest, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, which tackles our misconceptions of perceived advantages and disadvantages, is no different.

The book starts off with a clever take on the Biblical encounter between David and Goliath — you know, story about the little shepherd boy who defeats the massive, unstoppable giant warrior, presumably because he was infused with the power of God.  But oh no, Gladwell says. Contrary to what the Bible would want you to believe, David actually had all the advantages, with experts saying that his sling shot basically had the power and accuracy of a modern gun. Goliath, on the other hand, was large and immobile, and he was probably also nearly blind because of the condition that caused him to grow to such an enormous size.

That fun little introduction paves the way for many more examples to back up Gladwell’s theory that many of our preconceived notions about the world are wrong. In the ensuing chapters, Gladwell challenges the notions that smaller classes are better than bigger ones, that it is better to go to a top school than a mid-tier one, and that dyslexia is always a debilitating disadvantage to have. Is it better to be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a little pond? Does being nearly bombed in war make people more frightened or more courageous? Is the three-strike rule in crime prevention and punishment effective? These are just some of the questions he asks, and the answers he comes up with might surprise you.

One of the central pieces to his arguments is the inverted U-curve, which suggests that too much of a good thing will start generating diminishing returns, before eventually leading to negative returns. An example is the link between money and raising children. Being poor obviously makes it difficult to raise kids, and of course having more money will make it easier. But at some stage the richer you become the harder it will be to raise kids because they’re so comfortable and pampered that it’s almost impossible to motivate them to do anything.

As usual, Gladwell finds brilliant case studies with extensive research, humorous anecdotes and personal interviews to support his conclusions. He does oversimplify at times to make his point, but to his credit there are extensive notes and sources of further reading at the end of the book. I was also impressed with the breadth of topics he explores. As mentioned above, he considers things such as the Bible stories, the education system, dyslexia and crime prevention, but he goes even further as the book progresses, taking on the civil rights movement in the US, Northern Ireland and WWII. Some of the links are a little tenuous and I occasionally had to remind myself what the central argument of the book is about, but I guess that’s what happens when you try and fit everything under the same umbrella.

On the whole, this is another strong effort by Gladwell. I didn’t find it as engrossing as say Outliers, and I felt the David and Goliath story was such a fantastic start that the rest of the book felt weaker by comparison, but by the standards of any other book of the same genre this is an excellent read — friendly, informative, witty, well constructed and compelling.

4/5

PS: I was drawn to the book after watching Gladwell promote it on Jimmy Kimmel. Here’s the 2-part interview where he talks about the David and Goliath story and the benefits of dyslexia.

Writing fiction after all that non-fiction is really really hard

August 1, 2013 in Novel, On Writing

once upon a time

I have recently developed a very real fear that I may never be able to write fiction again.

They say writers need to write, and over the past year all I’ve been doing is reading and writing non-fiction, almost exclusively. At work every day I write news, and in my spare time I write on this blog, which essentially comprises film, restaurant and book reviews these days, or my sports blog, which is, well, all about sports.

My reading habits have also veered towards non-fiction. Browsing through my book reviews this year I see (chronologically from the start of the year):

- Fifty Shades Freed by EL James (fiction) — the final book in the Fifty Shades Trilogy and probably the worst book I have ever read, fiction or otherwise. I think it barely counts as a book, let alone fiction.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (non-fiction) — the legendary writing book, part memoir and part writers’ guide.

Tokyo Sketches by Peter Hamill (fiction) — a collection of short stories about Japan.

The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman (non-fiction) — another seminal writers’ book about staying out of the rejection pile.

Inferno by Dan Brown (fiction) — no introduction necessary, though again, some would argue whether Brown’s writing classifies as fiction given that it is dominated by Wikipedia-like entries about history, architecture and artworks. And the quality of the fiction writing is, let’s just say, somewhat lacking.

Dream Team by Jack McCallum (non-fiction) — a riveting account of the one and only 1992 Dream Team.

The War for Late Night by Bill Carter (non-fiction) — the fascinating account into the Conan O’Brien/Jay Leno late night television feud of 2010.

Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty (non-fiction) — Phil Jackson’s account of how he won his 11 NBA championship rings as a coach and 2 as a player.

The Elements of Style by Strunk & White (non-fiction) — the writing bible.

The Jordan Rules by Sam Smith (non-fiction) — the controversial book about Michael Jordan and the tumultuous 1990-91 season of the NBA champions Chicago Bulls.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (fiction) — the classic novel about a man whose youth and beauty was preserved by a magical painting.

Justice by Michael J Sandel (non-fiction) — an engrossing philosophy book about morality and the right thing to do.

By my count that’s 8 non-fiction books and 4 fiction books. But one of the fiction books is Fifty Shades and another is Dan Brown, so they don’t really count. And of the other two, one is a short story collection and the other is a classic novel written in the 19th century (which can be helpful but not that helpful).

It’s not that you can’t be creative with non-fiction writing, it’s just that the parameters are defined and confined by the facts you have to convey. With fiction writing it has to all come from your imagination, and that’s where I feel as though my brain has been reprogrammed and all that creativity I once had (however little it may have been) has been sucked out of me completely.

If I had to sit down and write a short story or screenplay right now I wouldn’t know where to start. In fact, just the thought of the possibility of getting back to working on my novels or screenplay makes me nervous, and scared — which probably explains why I have set myself the long-term target of completing all my backlogged blog posts before commencing any “proper” fiction writing. It’s pathetic, I know, but at least I am clearing out my backlog.

To lubricate my ride back into fiction, I am going to try and re-enter the land of fiction. Classics are good, but right now I’m thinking something less challenging, like commercial fiction. I’ve started reading Gillian Flynn’s acclaimed Gone Girl. I’m only about a fifth of the way through but it’s already shaping up to be one heck of a cracking read. It’s one of those books that grips onto you with characters that ring so true you feel like you know them. Apparently Ben Affleck has signed on for the film version, to be directed by David Fincher, so his head keeps popping up in my mind. (And Rosamund Pike has reportedly been cast as the other lead).

I still have some other non-fiction books I must get through, including parenting books on baby sleep (it’s gotta be done) and a couple of book reviews for publication. But my focus for the rest of the year will hopefully be on fiction. I have lined up The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed and Anna Funder’s All That I Am, and I intend to get through them all before December 31. I don’t know how, since having a job with two kids under two means I pretty much only have time to read while travelling to and from work and just before bed — but I’m still going to try to reach my New Year’s Resolution goal of 20 books for the year.

And before you start being a dick, give me a break; that’s very good for me already.

Book Review: ‘Justice’ by Michael J Sandel

July 30, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews

justice

Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do by Michael J Sandel is not the type of book I would usually pick up in a book store, but I did one day after seeing it being displayed prominently at Taipei’s 24 hour Eslite book store, possibly the greatest creation of human ingenuity behind the air conditioner and the afternoon nap.

I started reading it in the store and could not put it down, and eventually I decided to acquire an e-book version, which I devoured in a few days to my own surprise. It’s not often that I find a non-fiction book that discusses concepts rather than people (biographies) and stories (true crime) so engrossing and thought-provoking, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who has ever given thought to the seemingly limitless moral quandaries every aspect of society, big or small, has faced throughout history and continues to face every day.

Author Michael J Sandel is a professor at Harvard University who has taught a course on “Justice” for more than two decades. Justice is essentially that course in book form. Don’t be dismayed, because Justice does not at all read like the work of a snobby academic. In fact, I am still in awe of how Sandel has taken all these difficult concepts and philosophies and distilled them all down into articulate, engrossing prose that is about as easy to understand as you could ever hope it to be. Rather than reading a textbook, it feels more like reading the transcript of the most interesting lecture given by the most charismatic lecturer you’ve ever had. In some ways, Justice reminded me a little of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers in that the author was able to make a seemingly dry subject fascinating — and once you read it you realise it’s not a dry subject at all.

As the title of the book suggests, Justice explores the meaning of “justice” by asking us “what is the right thing to do?” in various morally complex situations, then taking the reader through the reasoning behind each of the possibilities and the pros and cons of each scenario. Of course, the questions and scenarios are not just based on ideas that Sandel has made up himself — the book is also an in-depth exploration of basic philosophical theories from utilitarianism and libertarianism to the theories of great thinkers like Kant, Rawls and even Aristotle. I had encountered most of these theories at one point or another (most likely during advanced economics classes) but I had always considered them boring — until now.

There are two aspects to the book that make it such a page turner. The first is the hypothetical questions Sandel asks his readers. For example, and I am really simplifying here, is it wrong to push a man to his certain death if it means saving the innocent lives of others? Is it OK to torture someone in a ticking time bomb situation? Should we pay taxes? Are free markets fair?  Should all contracts be binding? These are just some crude examples off the top of my head, but Sandel usually asks not just one question, but several layers of questions to see if your answers would alter with subtle to significant variations in the circumstances.

The other part I love about the book are the real life examples Sandel uses to illustrate his points. Why use a hypothetical example when there are real ones? There’s the 1884 incident when stranded sailors were forced to kill and eat the weakest survivor to survive. There’s the Stern surrogacy case from 1985, when a woman refused to hand over a baby she contracted to carry to term for a couple in return for payment. There’s the Cheryl Hopwood case, when a white woman sued after losing out to inferior candidates for admission to the University of Texas Law School because of affirmative action policies that favoured African Americans and Mexican Americans. And striking close to home was the refusal of former Australian prime minister John Howard’s refusal to apologise for the Stolen Generation, on the basis that future generations should not have to apologise for past wrongs committed by their ancestors.  These are just some of the many examples that Sandel draws upon to get us to think about our own concepts of morality and justice.

You have probably gathered by now that I had a great time with this book. If only all the classes I took throughout school and university could have been this engaging and thought-provoking. Granted, some sections could prove challenging or even frustrating for some readers — as they do, after all, deal with some complex ideas — but it’s almost impossible to stop turning the pages as soon as you dive into this book. Do it!

5/5

Book Review: Joe Cinque’s Consolation by Helen Garner

March 25, 2011 in Book Reviews, Reviews

In 1997, Anu Singh, a beautiful young Indian-Australian woman studying law at ANU killed her boyfriend Joe Cinque, an Italian-Australian engineering student, by first drugging him and then injecting him with a lethal dose of heroin while he slept. It was supposed to be a murder-suicide, except Singh couldn’t go through with the second part. Instead, she watched for 36 hours as Cinque died an agonising death. He was only 26 years old.

In Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Australian writer Helen Garner tries to make sense of this brutal, senseless and absolutely bizarre crime. She flies to Canberra to attend the trial of Singh and her obedient friend and ‘accomplice’, Madhavi Rao, befriending Joe Cinque’s parents and becoming more and more emotionally involved.

Why did Singh do what she did? Why did Rao help her? Why did their friends, all of whom knew about Singh’s plans, do nothing to stop them (they even attended a supposed ‘suicide’ party). Were they mentally ill or were they simply manipulating the law? And was psychiatry and the law going to allow them to get away with it?

This is a chilling, gut wrenching book. Filled with intricate details and descriptions of the death, the trial and the aftermath, it is admittedly painful to read at times, and yet I could not stop turning the pages. It is the kind of book that makes me want to devour more non-fiction in a hurry.

Garner writes with a simple, elegant prose that somehow cuts straight to the heart. Given the title of the book and the facts that she became friends with the Cinques and never managed to interview either Singh or Rao, it is no surprise which side she takes.  I suppose she makes an attempt to be objective, to be understanding to the other side, but she never got very far.  But that’s Helen Garner for you.  Say what you want about her, but at least she has the balls to put her views out there, even if she knows she may be crucified for them (like she was when she published The First Stone, which detailed a sexual harrassment claim by two young women against the head of their college at Melbourne University).

I had wanted to read this book since being introduced to it in my non-fiction writing class last year, and was glad to discover that it is compulsory reading for one of my other subjects this year (two birds with one stone!).  I read it all in China (about half of it on the plane ride over) and discussed it in class this week.  I was surprised by lukewarm reception by some of my classmates, who thought this was more Helen Garner’s consolation than Joe Cinque’s because she inserts herself firmly into the narrative.  They didn’t care about her marriage break up, how tired she was feeling, how outraged she felt for the Cinques.  She was pushing her life and personal beliefs onto her readers, and they despised that.

I don’t agree.  It’s her book.  Why should she keep her opinions to herself?  This is not a lifeless news report that purports to be objective.  By being so close to the ‘action’, she had woven herself into the fabric of the story.  She could have written herself out of it, like Capote in In Cold Blood, but instead she chose to tell it from her eyes and heart.  Besides, we have a choice.  We don’t have to read it.  We don’t have to agree with her.

No matter the opinion, few would disagree that Joe Cinque’s Consolation is a fantastic read.  It may be flawed book, but still a very good one, and one that had me captivated from start to finish.

4.25 stars out of 5

[For those who have read the book or are interested, I would recommend checking out this ABC interview with Anu Singh and the Cinques.  Really chilling, riveting stuff (with spoilers of course).

Book Review: Hiroshima by John Hersey

August 28, 2010 in Book Reviews

Hiroshima by John Hersey is one of the most remarkable, deeply affecting books I have ever read.  I first came across an extract as a part of my non-fiction writing class, but I found it so amazing that I quickly went out and purchased the entire book.

Hiroshima is a surprisingly simple piece of journalistic writing about six seemingly ordinary people who survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima.  It starts on the morning the bomb was dropped, when they were going about their normal lives, and ends several months later as they struggle to piece their shattered lives and bodies back together.  The narratives are simultaneous but The book originally had four chapters, but the modern edition I read had a fifth chapter called “The Aftermath”, written 40 years later after Hersey went back to see what had become of the lives of these six remarkable people (they really are remarkable).

In Hiroshima, John Hersey has created a sublime piece of non-fiction writing.  The skill involved in crafting this book is very understated.  The prose is not flowery or beautiful like Capote’s In Cold Blood — it’s simple, direct, subtle and meticulously described (and researched), but at the same time extremely effective, vivid, and haunting.  Some of the images brought to life by Hersey will stay with me forever.  The strange thing is, Hiroshima is not at all moralistic or manipulative.  It’s just an incredibly detailed and accurately told true story.  I can’t recall a book that has given me a greater urge to weep than this one.

This masterpiece first appeared as an article in The New Yorker on 31 August 1946 (a little after a year the atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima) and caused unprecedented attention as the entire editorial space of the issue was dedicated to the piece.  It was sold out within hours and was scalped for exorbitant prices.  It was read over the radio in its entirety and distributed all around the world for educational purposes.  Albert Einstein reportedly ordered 1,000 copies.  The Book-of-the-Month club distributed hundreds of thousands of copies for free to its members.

One of the best books I’ve read.

5 out of 5

[PS: I really wish I read Hiroshima by John Hersey before visiting the city in May 2008.]

 
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