Friday, November 28, 2008

Thanksgiving Reading

I am off to Ohio and Kentucky for Thanksgiving festivities. I brought three books with me. The first, which I finished quickly, was the new book out by Malcolm Gladwell called Outliers. If you have read either of Mr. Gladwell's books then you will know his observations and essays on modern life and ways of thinking are fascinating. He knows how to tell a story.

Gladwell has a general theme--in the case of Outliers the theme is "what makes someone successful?"--then he he writes a series of stories and parables and case studies to illustrate his theme. Blink is about the power of intuition in making decisions. The Tipping Point is about how fads and ideas become popular.

Outliers, Gladwell's most personal book, keeps to the style of the previous two works. He writes about surprising ideas and interesting ways of looking at things. It will help you to understand the Beatles and Bill Gates and math in an entirely new way. I now know that the secret to success is 10,000 hours. I've only got about 9,000 more to go.

The second book I brought which I am halfway through is called "Soldiers Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point." by Elizabeth Samet. More on this later. I will review it as part of an agreement with an early reviewers program that I am a part of. (Free books in return for a review!)

The third book is a biography of the great etiquette expert Emily Post. I may not get to this in the wake of Black Friday shopping and a wedding later tonight.

But really, read Outliers. You'll be very happy you did. Then check out Gladwell's other two books. Available all over any bookstore and I am sure one can check them out after a short wait at the library.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Steve Martin Two-fer

I have always been interested in artists who can successfully cross genres. What is more interesting than a ballet dancer who likes to sing in a jazz band or a poet who can write short stories? It is interesting to see what an artist is like in another field. This is what first drew me to the novella Shopgirl by Steve Martin which I picked up for .25 cents at the Red Cross Book Fair.

One glance at the book jacket and I knew, yup, it was that Steve Martin: comedian, actor and general all around funny guy. I have always like Mr. Martin. His movies are generally feel good experiences and he has a kind and likable personality. I saw the movie Shopgirl several years ago and did not remember it very well, so I thought I would read the novella.

Not long after I bought the book I saw Martin interviewed on The Daily Show. John Stewart reminded the audience of Mr. Martin’s memoir Born Standing Up in which he recounts his life as a stand up comedian and how he got his start in the business. I decided to go on an all Steve Martin reading bonanza.

Shopgirl took place almost exclusively in the character's heads. The thoughts and actions and motivations of each character were first and foremost on the writer’s mind. Sure they went out to dinner, but they had few conversations and seemed to exist in a sort of dreamy, quiet world. It felt like everyone whispered and cried and sulked. It was a love story of sorts, and I can’t say I liked it, but it was an intriguing book. I think the movie may have been better.

I enjoyed Born Standing Up much more. Steve Martin is well educated and very smart and from this it is easy to see how he became a successful comedian. It is a lot of hard work, meeting the right people and being in the right place. Martin told a mostly chronological tale of how he got his start and what some of his early influences were. It was a compelling read that brought home how difficult the stand up life is. He talked about his years on Saturday night live and writing for the Sonny and Cher show. The most profound and revealing parts of this memoir are when he discusses his relationship with his parents. It felt like a tiny part of the whole story, but it many ways it loomed very large. These short sentences and remembrances of his parents were always moving. Perhaps what is most telling about this memoir is that Martin is not extraordinary in his drug use or his being abused or abusing people. He only behaves outrageously as a part of his act, but not as a fellow citizen of the planet. He just is a good hard-working man, and he can write well about how he got to where he is.

So there you have it—a pair of Steve Martin books. Now I’ll have to rent The Jerk.