Monday, March 29, 2010

Think Twice by Lisa Scottline

Title: Think Twice
Author: Lisa Scottoline
St. Martin's, 2010

If you're looking for a quick, action packed thriller that will make you laugh as well as cry, this is it.  But just because its a fast read and action-packed doesn't mean its fluff.  Far from it.  Lisa Scottoline's latest novel is filled with deep relationship issues, betrayal and revenge, identity theft, the law and money, and the consequences of making decisions based on hope and fear.  All of these revolve around a main question: how far can a good person be pushed before they snap?

In Think Twice one of the primary relationships is between Bennie Rosato and herself.   Bennie is a good person, a hard worker who owns her own well-respected Philadelphia law firm.  A few books ago Bennie discovered that she had a twin who was given up at birth.  Years ago Lisa Scottoline discovered that she had a half sister who was given up at birth.  Lisa's sister isn't evil, but Bennie's twin sister, Alice, is pretty rotten.  In an attempt to save her own life, Alice tries to take over Bennie's life.  She drugs Bennie and buries her alive.  Bennie's sense of betrayal and need for revenge pits her against her own better nature.  Bennie is the hero and most readers probably assume that she'll end up alive at the end of the book.  But will she be the same Bennie?  Will she cross a line to the dark side, take a step from which there is no return? 

Earlier this evening I had a great time at Lisa's book signing at the Borders in LaGrange, IL.  She had the audience laughing at times and getting teary eyed at others...just like she does in her books.  I'm sitting in Caribou sipping a hot coffee and munching on a Tastykake as I write.  I'm in Chicago and you can't buy Tastykakes here (yet).  The Tastykake is from Philadelphia, courtesy of Lisa Scottoline.  She always hands them out at her events and I always eat them, even if they are a little on the sweet side for my tastes.  It would be rude to decline.

Think Twice is another winner from Lisa Scottoline.  I love her books and have been a fan for ten years now.  One of my coworkers turned me on to her books and if you're not already a fan, I hope you'll give her a try.  Her novels are full of intelligent, humorous, and "real" women--busy women who work hard and deal with family, friends, bosses, colleagues, significant others, kids, and pets.  Some are supremely confident, others are struggling with self-confidence.  If you haven't read any Scottoline yet, you're in for a pleasant surprise.  After you read Think Twice, you'll probably want to go back to the beginning and pick up Lisa's first novel, Everywhere That Mary Went, and read them in chronological order.  You don't have to read her novels in chronological order, but it's interesting to see the characters' development over time (in the series books, some are stand-alones) and to see Lisa's growth as a writer.  If you're already a fan, you'll be thrilled by the action and growth/change in the relationships between the returning characters of the Bennie Rosato and Associates series. 

Below is a list of Lisa's books.  The first chapter of each book is available to read on her website.
  • Think Twice, 2010*
  • Why My Third Husband Will Be A Dog, 2009 (nonfiction)
  • Look Again, 2009
  • Lady Killer, 2008*
  • Daddy's Girl, 2007
  • Dirty Blonde, 2006
  • Devil's Corner, 2005
  • Killer Smile, 2004*
  • Dead Ringer, 2003*
  • Courting Trouble, 2003*
  • The Vendetta Defense, 2001*
  • Moment of Truth, 2000*
  • Mistaken Identity, 1999*
  • Rough Justice, 1998*
  • Legal Tender, 1997*
  • Running From the Law, 1996
  • Final Appeal, 1995
  • Everywhere That Mary Went, 1994*
*denotes books with characters from Rosato and Associates

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink

(Original subtitle: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age)
Author: Daniel H. Pink
Publisher: Riverhead, 2005
Source: library

I came to this book because a teacher of mine talked about it several times and even gave us a bit of an overview one day in class.  If someone mentions a book to me more than once, I almost always check it out.

After a short wait I was able to download the audio edition from my library.  The author reads the book himself and I love it when that happens with nonfiction.  The writer is able to bring subtle nuances to the reading that enhances the content in a way that most actors cannot.  I've listened to a few audio books where the reader is annoyingly chipper or they read in a way where everything is emphasized to the point that the content feels like its been over-exposed like a bleached out picture.  There is little contrast and so the listener is left without hooks on which to hang the ideas presented.  But I digress.

Pink's reading is engaging and personable, almost conversational.  Although he was easy to follow, he made so many interesting recommendations (books, music, websites, ideas) that I quit trying to jot down notes (not an easy or wise thing to do when driving) and just listened with pleasure, knowing that I could easily get my hands on the print edition for those recommendations.

The book is divided into two parts, The Conceptual Age and The Six Senses.  The Conceptual Age discusses how and why America's workforce is changing.  We're moving out of the Information Age of knowledge workers and into the Conceptual Age where the demand is for creators and sympathizers.  The Information Age put more emphasis on and therefore gave more privileged to left-brained ways of thinking and working.  The left brain understands information that is sequential, textual, and that lends itself to computer-like analysis.  The Conceptual Age, on the other hand, is fueled by right brain modes of thinking which rely on context, relationships and sees the big picture.  The two sides of the human brain work together, not in isolation.  The point Pink is making is that privileging left-brain-style thinking is no longer adequate to compete and thrive in the Conceptual Age.  We need to nurture the right-brain-styles of thinking that have been scorned in the past and combine it with left-brain-styles.  Hence the idea of a WHOLE new mind. 

Most traditionally left-brain dominated fields such as accounting, programming, and even some legal and medical specialties are easily outsourced.  People choosing careers would be wise to look for jobs that cannot be automated and instead look towards professions that call for high concept and high touch (those that emphasis compassion and inspiration).  In short: the MFA is the new MBA. 

Part Two looks at each of Pink's Six Senses in detail.  These are right brain directed aptitudes that will grow in importance in the Conceptual Age:
1. Not just function but also DESIGN
2. Not just argument but also STORY
3. Not just focus but also SYMPHONY
4. Not just logic but also EMPATHY
5. Not just serious but also PLAY
6. Not just accumulation but also MEANING

Each aptitude has it own chapter full of stories about people, professionals, pop culture and ends with a section of recommendations, exercises, and questions/concepts to ponder.  I really enjoy these end sections because they challenge me to think about things I may have never thought about and to think about old things in new ways.  Even if you don't agree with Pink's ideas on the reasons why and the ways how our Age is being transformed, these recommendations will probably be a refreshing opportunity to work your brain in new ways and enhance the way you see, understand, and live in the world.

One funny anecdote regarding DESIGN: the paperback version of A Whole New Mind has a cutout outline of a head's silhouette on the front cover.  It looks cool, but its also right where people hold the book to open it.  The result?  Many of the copies at the bookstore where I work are torn and now not in sell-able condition.  The designer had a great idea--it looks cool--but it isn't practical.  The utility of the design is faulty.

I recommend this book to seekers: people who are contemplating their first career, to those pondering new careers, and to folks who like to challenge themselves and who think about how they think as well as how the world turns.

Pink has a new book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, which came out in late 2009.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Fatherland by Robert Harris

Title: Fatherland
Author: Robert Harris
Publisher: Random House, 1992
Originally published in the UK by Hutchinson.

Fatherland is one of those books that has regularly crossed my path over the years, usually mentioned in an article about some other book I’d read.  I finally gave it a go and checked it out of the library last week.

The novel has the feel of a Cold War thriller, but the atmosphere of the novel is even more claustrophobic than many of that genre tend to be because the action takes place in 1964, in Post World War II Germany, a Germany that won the war and continues to be ruled by Hitler’s Nazi Party.  The Nazi propaganda & violence machine has been churning for over 40 years.   The younger generations are fully indoctrinated into the system; indeed, they know no other way of life.  If older generations question the system, they’ve learned to keep those questions to themselves.  Tourists flock to Berlin to see the wonders of the Reich, a Berlin rebuilt as Hitler and Albert Speer had planned.  Because the Nazi’s won the war, the truth of what became of the millions of Jews who were relocated to the East is not known.   America’s President Joseph P. Kennedy will soon arrive for a summit with Hitler to discuss an end to the Cold War between the two super powers.

The action starts on April 14, 1964 and ends only six days later on April 20th, Führertag, Hitler's birthday which has become the main holiday of the Reich.  Homicide detective Xavier March, a former U-boat captain during WWII, is called to the shores of Lake Havel where a body has been washed ashore.  It turns out to be the body of Joseph Buhler, an old guard in the Nazi party, whose death initially looks like a swimming accident.  March is quickly and officially called off the case after the Gestapo takes over the investigation and rules the death a suicide. 

But March can’t let it go.  He’s a 40-something divorcee who hasn’t had a promotion in ten years and is alienated from his only child, a ten-year-old son named Pili who is gung-ho for the Nazis.  Rumor has it that the Gestapo is ready to come down on March after years of documenting his disinterest, if not outright hostility, toward his Nazi rulers.  He risks his life by carrying on his own investigation.  There’s a pretty girl, of course: Charlotte Maguire, a tough American journalist who drinks, smokes, and isn’t afraid to use her fists. 

One of the things driving March is a picture of the family who once occupied his apartment, the Weiss family, who lived there from 1928-1942.  He found a picture of them tucked into the wallpaper and this photo and their disappearance haunt March.  He’s also tired of the Gestapo and party bosses neatly sweeping the truth under the proverbial carpet.  March peels away layer after layer of political maneuvering and finds much more than he bargained for.

The most interesting parts of the novel are those where Harris imagines what life would be like under an ongoing Nazi dictatorship.  It’s a life ruled by insecurity both at the national and the personal levels.  There’s a scene in the beginning of the novel where March is on a Reich Tourist Ministry tour bus with his son who wanted to take the tour, yet again, to see the architectural glories of the Reich.   As the tour guide goes on about the size of the architecture March thinks, “Higher, longer, bigger, wider, more expensive . . . even in victory . . . Germany has a parvenu’s inferiority complex.  Nothing stands on its own.  Everything has to be compared with what the foreigners have” (22).   Upon dropping his son off at home, he notes that his ex, her new lover, and now his son all wear some sort of uniform for the Reich.  The only creature in their home who doesn’t wear a uniform is the dog.

The Nazi regime remains obsessed with racial purity: “Homosexuality and miscegenation had replaced rape and incest as capital offenses.  Abortion, “an act of sabotage against German’s racial future,” was punishable by death.” (86).

And it’s those who are most insecure about their position and their safety who are the loudest proponents of racial purity: “the racial fanatics were seldom the blue-eyed Aryan supermen. . . . Instead, the swampy frontiers of the German race were patrolled by those less confident of their blood worthiness.  Insecurity breeds good border guards. . . . The lame and the ugly, the runts of the national litter—these were the loudest defenders of the Volk” (85-86).

This novel is also a warning about the political struggle over who controls history.  Because the Nazi’s won the war, they are in full control over what is taught in schools, what is printed in newspapers & books, and what is broadcast on radio & TV.  Twenty years after the war, they continue to weed out the monumental archival holdings of the Reich so that only the “right history” will be known.  It’s a good reminder of why people who are committed to freedom and democracy should read as much as they can from a wide variety of sources to stay as informed as possible about the world we live in and our history.  There's been much press lately about the political text book controversy going on now in Texas.

I recommend Fatherland to mystery/thriller lovers and history buffs.  In 1994 the book was made into an award-winning HBO movie.  Netflix doesn't seem to carry it as of this posting.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (book & movie)

Title: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Author: Stieg Larsson
Translator: Reg Keeland
Publisher: Vintage Crime, 2009
Originally published by Norstedt, 2005

I'd been meaning to get to this book for sometime, but it wasn't until I found out that the Gene Siskel Film Center would have a special one day showing of the Swedish movie on March 6th that I got some fire under my butt to start reading.  I'm one of those people who doesn't like to see a movie based on a book until after I've read the book.  Alas, read as I would between classes, studying, and work, I still had about 25 pages left to the book when sat down in the movie theater. 

First the book:  As popular as the book has been, I knew almost nothing about it other than one of the main characters was a tough, tattooed computer whiz.  I was both pleasantly surprised and awfully disturbed by the book.

I was surprised by how much I ended up liking both Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist.  How can you not like a sleuth who settles into a new town by getting a library card?  I liked Blomkvist from that moment on.  Oddly, however, the only unrealistic thing about him for me was that he only reads novels by women mystery writers.  How realistic is that?  I've been a bookseller for ten years and can't recall meeting a man who only reads women mystery writers.  I have met men who read mainly male mystery writers and women who read only women mystery writers (mainly cozy fans), but for a man to read mysteries written exclusively by women struck me as odd and a little too heavy handed to make the point that Blomkvist is "sensitive" to women.  Or maybe its a Swedish thing.  Or maybe in my mad dash to finish the book before seeing the movie I don't recall reference to male mystery writers.

What disturbed me is the brutal violence against women.  Larsson doesn't go into gruesome detail describing the murders, but the briefest description was more than enough for me.  Indeed, sometimes less is more.   Larsson's original title is Men who Hate Woman ("Män som hatar kvinnor").  He frames the violence against by including a statistic of violence against women on the section break of each part:
  •  Part 1: Incentive.  Eighteen percent of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man.
  • Part 2: Consequence Analysis.  Forty-six percent of the women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man.
  • Part 3:  Mergers. Thirteen percent of the women in Sweden have been subjected to aggravated sexual assault outside of a sexual relationship.
  • Part 4:  Hostile Takeover.  Ninety-two percent of women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violence incident to the police.
I won't go into any details about the violence in an effort to avoid spoilers.  Other major themes in the book include the moral turpitude of big business, the lack of investigative journalism looking into big business & financial dealings, mistrust of the legal system, the Swedish strain of Nazism, and familial dysfunction.

Now the Movie: I really enjoyed the movie.  I saw it in Swedish with English subtitles.  I mainly wanted to enjoy the scenery, architecture, and whatever atmosphere I could soak up, and assumed I'd miss out on some of the dialog because subtitles are sometimes hard for me to follow.  However, the subtitles were closer to mid-screen rather than all the way at the bottom of the screen so I was able to comfortably read them without sacrificing my visual enjoyment of the film.

Michael Nyqvist as Bloomkvist and Noomi Rapace as Salander were absolutely perfect fits with how I imagined them while reading the book.  Rapace plays Salander superbly.  She's both electrifying and painful to watch (and I mean painful in a good way in that she captures the tortured nature of Salander).  Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg did a solid job on the screenplay.  As those of you who read the book know, the novel's plot is fairly complex and although I wasn't thrilled with some of the sacrifices/changes that they had to make for time, the movie does seem to follow the spirit of the book. 

At one point while watching the film my lungs started to hurt in sympathy due to Salander's chain-smoking. 

The weakest link in the movie for me was the character of Erika Berger played by Lena Endre.  Berger is Blomkvist's long-time lover and business partner/boss who is a sophisticated, talented editor in the book, but comes across as a bit too high strung, needy, and maniacal looking in the movie.

Rumor has it that there's a Hollywood version of the book or the trilogy of books under negotiation.  It'll be interesting to see how Hollywood handles some of the more graphic scenes such as those between Salander and Bjurman.  They'll have a high bar to hit following the original.

I'm looking forward to reading Larsson's second book of the trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire, over spring break later this month.  It's coming out in paperback on March 23, 2010.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin

Title: Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else (audio version)
Author: Geoff Colvin
Read by: David Drummond
Publisher: Tantor Media, 2008

I have a two hour commute each day and usually listen to free podcasts about books or running, but I recently discovered that I can download audio books for free from the library via My Media Mall.  I have a hard time with audio books because the reader's voice and performance can quickly kill a book for me.  Its all I can do right now to restrain myself from boring you with stories of bad audio books past.  I'm still traumatized by an especially horrific Moby Dick experience.  Suffice it to say now that David Drummond, the reader of Talent is Overrated, is a decent reader.

Geoff Colvin takes on the age-old assumption that people who are the 'great leaders' of their field arrive on earth with an inborn talent.  Greatness isn't destiny or DNA, rather it boils down to decades of intentional practice and sacrifice at the level that most of us are not willing to make.  Colvin writes for Fortune magazine and points out that many people typically think about greatness in sports and music, but not business.  Although we know athletes and musicians are trained and coached, we also make the assumption that they have an inborn talent for their sport or instrument when really, they don't.

Colvin identifies four factors that contribute to great performance:
  1. Years of intentional practice
  2. Analysis of your results
  3. Learning from your mistakes
  4. Coaching by progressively more advanced teachers
Two examples that Colvin discusses are Mozart and Tiger Woods.  Both men are thought to have an inborn natural talent, but by looking at their histories Colvin identifies many similarities: both men were introduced to music/golf at extremely young ages, both had fathers who were teachers in their respective fields, and both spent years focused on very intentional practice before most of their peers even started to learn music/golf.  By the time Mozart and Tiger Woods were teens, they already had over ten years of intense training and intentional practice and so looked like wizards compared to the other boys and girls their age. 

I've read bits of Malcolm Gladwell's The Outliers, which also came out in 2008, and his idea of 10,000 hours of practice to achieve greatness seems to be in line with Colvin's findings.  I know this topic of greatness and how to achieve it is as old as the hills, but the big take away from Colvin's book for me is the idea of intentional practice, of really breaking things down into small bits and practicing that.  For example, when hobbyist golfers practice, they'll go to the driving range and hit their standard 100-300 balls.  Tiger Woods, on the other hand, goes to a sand pit, places a ball on the sand, steps on it, and then practices getting out of that situation.  He may rarely find himself in that predicament during a tournament, but its those little details that can bring huge rewards.

Colvin wonders about using the Mozart/Woods model to mentor and train future business leaders, which is completely possible.  He points out, however, that it might be hard to handle a leader of a large-scale business who is a teen.  In that context socialization plays a huge role.  We are social creatures and although leadership is found at all ages, it does take significant years of life experience to refine one's leadership ability in order to lead adults for a sustained period of time. This subject made me think about the myths surround Mozart's maturity (or lack, thereof) as well as Tiger Wood's recent interpersonal problems.  It is this psycho-social aspect of greatness that I find fascinating, but it is not Colvin's focus.

Long story short: if you're not yet great, go out and find a teacher to challenge your current level of proficiency and then practice, practice, practice--intentionally--for at least ten years.  Oh, and a supportive family would be nice, too.  Good luck, and may The Force be with you!
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