I had loved Charles Duhigg’s previous book, The Power of Habit, but this one, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business seems to line up a number of (interesting) stories that never quite connect or add up to a bigger whole. Sure, some ideas are interesting, especially the ones about boot camp drill sergeants consistently complimenting recruits on unexpected aspects of their performance (to stress that practice makes perfect), or teachers really using big data only after they have to painstakingly track results by hand (so they really engage with the data). But the book is just not compelling.
Monthly Archives: June 2016
In stark contrast with the book I reviewed yesterday, almost nothing happens in Eleven Hours. Well, a baby’s born, which is something, but you know it’s going to happen from the first page since this is the story of a labor. There are two protagonists, the woman in labor and her nurse (o, how nice it must be to have one nurse and one nurse only throughout!) and their back stories emerge during the ordeal, although mostly as internal monologues since patient-nurse professionalism must remain. I thought it was brilliant, minus the weird soaring chorus at the very end.
Before the Wind is the saga of a family of boat builders and sometimes racers that starts with a stunning description of the set of characters — and then becomes sadly becalmed, and while the daughter seems able to move sailboats without wind, her power does not extend to the narrative. If you are a sailing enthusiast, it might work for you. Otherwise, despite the many adventures of the family, ranging from international wildlife smuggling to organic farming to high-level mathematics to extreme boat repairs, save your precious reading time for something else.
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts tells two stories: first, how the hero of the book managed to gather together hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscripts that had been hidden around Mali after the Timbuktu empire crumbled, and how, just went years later, he (and many others) fought to secrete them out of Timbuktu ahead of Islamist extremists eager to destroy anything that did not correspond to their very peculiar interpretation of the Quran. The book manages to describe the flourishing of Timbuktu in the 1500s, the patient search to obtain the manuscripts from people who were quite doubtful that they would be safe outside their hands (and were right about that!), the quest for funding to restore the manuscripts, and the hair-raising evacuation of the library. While the critics seem to hail the evacuation, I found the earlier sections just as fascinating.
I can feel a new crime series starting: with The Strings of Murder, we not only encounter a blood-soaked Victorian mystery, but also two inspectors with, as we would say today, personal baggage, one a London snob who is slumming it in Edinburgh after having been kicked out of his job at Scotland Yard in the midst of a political intrigue and the other a local with a frightful family history. The mystery will be solved, after many more murders and twists, and I imagine the inspectors will make it to another book.
Every once in a while the historical details seem overdone, or the conversation is anachronistic (no teenagers in Victorian times!) but the overall effect is engrossing.
I suppose a book about “stuff” is allowed to be a little messy, but Junk: Digging Through America’s Love Affair with Stuff could need a good organizer (and a solid purge) to make it readable. There are, for instance, no fewer than three long descriptions of junk-removal services, all quite interesting, but I would think that they could have been condensed and classified in more useful ways. And they are also some full-length interviews that could be summarized, as well as interesting but not exactly relevant stories about homeless housing. It all feels like a jumble sale: nice surprises here and there but a lot of nothing in between.
I just could not understand the point of Capture: Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Suffering. The author’s thesis is that mental illnesses, although varied, may well have a common cause, and that the cause is the “capture” of the title, that is, a disordered processing of stimuli by the brain, influenced by powerful past emotional events. (isn’t it convenient to have such a broad definition, which can be mapped on almost anything?)
In any case, the author then proceeds to describe many literary and historic events in this light, in the process turning almost any deviant behavior into mental illness, and claiming to illustrate the vague claim. He’s a good storyteller but, as I said, I just did not get it.