Monday, October 8, 2018

Review: The Road to Character

The Road to Character The Road to Character by David Brooks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is like no other book I have read. It will make you stop. Stop and reflect. This is not a self-help book. It is a book of Truth – not the modern, moldable or expendable kind of truth, but hard Truth.

In this book, The Road to Character, Truth makes an appearance in every story, in every soul, in every chapter – and within the first few pages, this Truth will make an appearance in your mind and in your life, whether you welcome it or not.

Mr. Brooks had a revelation, transparent and uncomplicated, about the way Americans used to be, several decades ago. We were once modest, focused on the same worthy goals, eager to sacrifice. Unable to shake this sense that (not so very long ago) humanity was once a profoundly quieter, humbler, and infinitely more polite breed, he began to study. He researched, he thought, and, then, he wrote this book.

In describing this fundamental shift, he does not shove the blame onto technology and the age of the selfie, although it has unquestionably contributed to the vapid and the vacuous. Brooks goes far beyond this obvious problem.

To illustrate the morality shift he identifies early in the book, he uses short biographies of people who accomplished things, really big things, while at the same time confronting their own flaws, weaknesses, and blunders. These biographies are as captivating as they are uncommon. He focuses on people who (in their time) were not super-famous, but who did good things – very good things - in the course of confronting their own pride, defects, and vices. They were humble; they were effective.

His central point is that happiness and character arise when we are struggling against our own natures, when we keep digging into ourselves to be better, to do better. He points out again and again that people who radiate moral joy are people who are inclined to be useful but who don’t need to prove anything to the world. They don’t Tweet, Instagram, email or Facebook their acts of ordinary sacrificial service because they possess a modest spirit; it does not occur to them to try to impress anyone. They do not boast, and they do not make statements of dogged certainty, because they have shed that kind of arrogance. The terribly hard work of defeating one’s own weaknesses has a quieting effect on the self, Brooks says. I paused on this truth for a long time.

We recognize these people of depth and character. They are so distinctive because they have successfully muted the sound of their own egos. They have solved some of life’s essential problems and this has deepened their very souls. They know it is hard. They have learned what is most important and they will never shout at you about what is right or what is wrong.

This is the best book I’ve ever read on how not to be a loser – how not to reach a certain age only to discover that your days were filled with all the wrong stuff.

It made a big impression on me. I think it will for a very long time.

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Saturday, October 6, 2018

Review: The Kitchen House

The Kitchen House The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am getting too old for books like this. I lost two nights of sleep and full neck mobility, because, although exhausted and injured, I simply could not stop reading.

What a story. It is early 19th Century and a 7 year old orphaned Irish girl is sent to a tobacco plantation in the antebellum South where she lives and works with the slaves in the "kitchen house". Then, life begins to happen; my word, each chapter was a fresh bucket of cold water thrown in my face.

Through her magic, Grissom makes every blow and every piece of human wretchedness real. She also reminds us what bravery and love can endure, and why love is the only thing that can save us from ourselves.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Review: The Other Einstein

The Other Einstein The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was a gift from a friend. I loved it.

Frankly, other than the many posters I've seen, with affirmations plastered boldly beneath his disheveled visage, I don't know much about the man - Albert Einstein. This book is not and does not profess to be a biography of his life with his first wife. The author explains at the end that there are facts that she was able to unearth before she wrote this story and there are embellishments of these facts which she was able to imagine and include in the story.

Of course, I now have the fabrications forever fitted into the mix of Mileva Maric's life with Albert!

I do love books about strong women (not the type which make the news these days as they bear no resemblance to the real thing). I mean women who clawed and fought for education, for a life of the mind, for recognition of their exceptionalism and respect for their achievements in the science and literary worlds, in the face of a brutal, and deep-rooted irrelevance there. Mileva was such a woman, it seems.

The language at the beginning of the book is a little beige - maybe even vanilla. However, as the pace increases, color and flavor do, too. Keep reading as this book gets better and better with each page.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Review: Vilette

Vilette Vilette by Charlotte Brontë
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was an ambitious read but never, ever unpleasant. Reading Bronte, to me, is like listening to your favorite piece of music or walking through a boundless, beautiful garden. You can, in fact, begin anywhere and feel nourished by the beauty and art in every breath of it. You can take it in gulps or you can sip slowly and casually. In Vilette, there is a story being told, of course, but Bronte is never in a hurry. She causes the reader to slow down and be in the moment with her. I think she knows that her sentence craft and strolling thoughts (regardless of what she is describing or conveying) are so impeccable that haste would border on the felonious.

We are told by history that Vilette is autobiographical. Her life, it appears, was plagued by loneliness, financial strain, and want of opportunity. Yet, her talent and depth of character poured out in her writing. She is an individual who focused on her eulogy virtues far more than her resume virtues, practically a foreign concept these days. She is a person I would have liked to have known.

I waited until I finished the book before reading what others had to say about it. I was so disgruntled by the ending of book, that I only read essays on why she closed her story the way she did. In these essays, I did find satisfaction.

This is not a quick read, a clamorous page-turner, or a gripping adventure story with hairpin twists and turns. It is a deeply personal and interesting story told with elegance and adorned with dazzlingly intelligent revelations on human nature.

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Thursday, September 13, 2018

Review: Manhattan Beach

Manhattan Beach Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I thought the author did a good job spinning the yarn in this work, because it was a book I wanted to keep reading. This is because the writing was very good (so many sentences which sparkled for me) but also because I was determined to figure out what it was actually about. It was disjointed; it ended up being something akin to a patchwork quilt. There were several superb vignettes any one of which could have become the thread which held it all together, yet each character and each scene felt incomplete. The story spans Depression Era and WWII - hard times all around. There are several conflicts which seek resolution - too many, in my opinion. All of this I was willing to forgive, because I was grateful for those shimmering sentences. But the ending? Gah. I really wanted something different.

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Thursday, September 6, 2018

Review: Breaking the Feedback Loop

Breaking the Feedback Loop Breaking the Feedback Loop by A.N. Turner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was written by a University of Pennsylvania student in his junior year of college. It might be the most important book you will read on the difficulties which face us as a society as we hurl headlong into a life lashed tightly to the internet.

If you have not stopped to thoughtfully consider how your life has been reshaped and leashed to devices and how this is changing who you are at your very core, do it now. Start with this book. I warn you, though. It is disruptive.

Strangely, we will eagerly read about the problems of the past and are often entertained as we read about the potential of the future. However, we are less inclined to critically examine the culture in which we bath ourselves today, right now. I think this is because there is nothing we can do about what has passed or about what has yet to occur. But, we can do something right this minute. We can take some corrective action right now. Inconvenient, right? (I know…)

The author does give many suggestions on how to chip away at our reliance on devices. These suggestions are very doable – setting time limits for checking social media, putting computers and smart phones away in a drawer for X number of hours (or minutes) per day, building slowly toward more independence from them.

I read an article recently which described a looming crisis in our military.

According to the Pentagon, “71 percent of Americans ages 17 to 24, the military's main recruitment source, are ineligible to serve.” That's 24 million of the 34 million people in that age group! Why? To put it bluntly, it is because they are too fat, too dumb or too criminal. Can you guess what the culprit is?

In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald writes: “The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.” This is us. Staring blankly throughout the day and night at our glowing screens, clicking and clicking and clicking and clicking.

The author spends lots of time discussing the devastating effect of internet porn, as he was once addicted himself. More than 30% of the data that travels over the internet every day is porn and that number is growing at a terrifying rate. Predictions are that in a short time, most internet traffic will be porn. It is already the most profitable. Why is this terrifying? As the book discusses in detail, because it cripples – it cripples emotionally, physically, and cognitively. It’s cheap, easy, and everywhere. It is a drug which alters body chemistry. When it is not there, it is craved; when it is obtained, it never, ever fully satisfies. The average age at first exposure to porn is 10. Porn addiction ruins marriages, it ruins the individual’s ability to form normal relationships, and it derails the lives of the boys and youth addicted to it. Consider a young, still-forming brain steeped for hours a day in impersonal, dehumanizing images. Imagine the many ways this will distort and disable for years to come – maybe forever. If your kids have smart phones, they are exposed. Maybe they are even in this fight.

After reading this book, and a few others like it, I knew I could not go back and pretend that spending hours a day online is o.k. It is reducing IQ, it’s sedentary cloak threatens health in multiple ways, and, very possibly, it is delivering the paralyzing poison of porn to every room it enters.

Books like this make us uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable. Yet, doing nothing is not an option.

Wanting to end on an up-note, I place a short reading here. It motivated me to take some action against the Jekyll/Hyde monster I must live with – the internet. I hope it helps you too.

" It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. " *
 *Man in the Arena, Theodore Roosevelt

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Sunday, August 26, 2018

Review: Don Quixote

Don Quixote Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Initially funny - ultimately terribly tedious. I did not like this book and want to apologize to my first three kids, because I made them read it in high school, as I was under the false impression that it was one of those "very important books".

The only important message I could extract from the 900 pages is that if you read too many nonsense books, it might deal a serious blow to your sanity, which is what happened to Don Quixote of La Mancha.

It is a clever book, yes. I laughed at Quixote's idiocy, but I found my own limit for whimsical stupidity at around page 300. Sympathy for his straight man, Sancho, and fatigue over the Dulcinea delusion had me just scanning some of the following 600 pages and sometimes just reading the first sentence of each paragraph.

Apologies to all sweet on Cervantes. This book was not for me.

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