Wednesday, July 29, 2009

THE TIPPING POINT by Malcolm Gladwell

The "tipping point" is sort of the straw that broke the camel's back. In other words, it's the factor that causes a trend to become epidemic. Gladwell makes his point that little things make a big difference via a variety of examples. The most distressing was a decade-long epidemic of young male suicides in Micronesia, tipped off by the glamorous and well-publicized suicide of a young man torn between two women. Many of Gladwell's examples, however, are about positive trends, including the unbelievable drop in the crime rate on subways in New York City, which demonstrates the power of context on human behavior. He also explains the rule of 150, which says that 150 is the maximum number of people that can work together effectively. Gore Industries (maker of GORE-TEX fabric), which operates under an unusual horizontal organizational structure, periodically breaks up units that have expanded beyond the 150-person threshold. Gladwell also covers more novel trends such as the comeback of Hush Puppies in the '90's and attributes all such social epidemics to 3 types of people: connectors, mavens, and persuaders. My favorite anecdote is the story of the experiment which gave us the term "six degrees of separation." This is fascinating stuff that should be intuitive but isn't.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


It's not clear if the title character in Susan Choi's A Person of Interest has the first name or last name of Lee, as that's his only moniker throughout the novel. This lack of a full name emphasizes Lee's academic stature as one of the "shorter poppies." The taller poppies, or those with a more flamboyant presence in the world of mathematics, are being lopped off by a mail bomber. The latest victim is Rick Hendley, a popular Computer Science professor whose office is next door to Lee's. Lee has mixed emotions about Hendley's demise, as he has always envied the constant stream of traffic to Hendley's office. Still, despite the depiction of Lee as a nondescript tenured professor at a nondescript Midwestern college, Lee has had a pretty interesting life. He emigrated from Japan as a young man and later stole the wife (Aileen) of a grad school friend (Lewis Gaither). When Lee receives an anonymous letter that attracts the attention of the FBI, suddenly he is a persona non grata with his colleagues and his neighbors. What's so fascinating here is that Lee and I drew completely different conclusions about who sent the letter, and I think it was Choi's intention to show that Lee's long-harbored guilt interferes with his ability to be objective about both the letter's contents and its authorship. The plot becomes Kafkaesque as Lee's life unravels at the hands of the media and the rumor mill, and it drags a little while catching us up on Aileen's son with Lewis. Born John, now known as Mark, he's totally unaware that the woman who raised him is not his biological mother. The book is ultimately a story of redemption as Lee tries to compensate for the dreadful mistakes of his past and finally appreciates the richness of his own life.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


There are convoluted family trees, and then there are those like Willie Upton's in Lauren Groff's The Monsters of Templeton. Hers is such a tangle that it's more of a closed loop. Willie embarks on a quest to discover the identity of her father with the fact that he descended from an unknown branch of her family tree as her only clue. Willie has just returned to her hometown of Templeton, a fictionalized Cooperstown, NY, just as a huge (dead) creature, hundreds of years old, has been removed from Lake Glimmerglass. The monsters in the title refer both to this creature and its possible progeny, as well as Willie's forbears, who have murdered, committed suicide, been murdered, and have harbored any number of other family secrets. Willie is recovering from a disastrous affair that concluded with her trying to run down her lover's wife in an airplane. Helping her cope is her hippie-mother-turned-nurse-turned-born-again-Christian, Vivienne, who sees the family research as a means of getting Willie's life back on track. There is also a benevolent ghost who helps Willie solve the riddle of her parentage, but I never grasped which of Willie's unsavory or victimized relatives had haunted the family cottage for generations. As in many such dual-storyline books, the ancient history is more captivating than Willie's moping and whining. One of my favorite episodes, though, is where a young Willie is reprimanded by her mother and the principal for punching a boy at school. When the boy confesses that he called her a bastard, the fatherless girl's transgression is quickly forgiven in the midst of embarrassed stammering on the part of the adults.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A BELL FOR ADANO by John Hersey

I read John Hersey's The Child Buyer in college and enjoyed a spirited discussion of it with a professor. Now I remember nothing about it, but I've wanted to read another Hersey novel every since. Written in 1944 about the Allied occupation of a coastal Italian town, the Pulitzer winner A Bell for Adano is surprisingly funny at times. Obviously Hersey is making a patriotic point and a plug for democracy with his American hero Major Victor Joppolo, whose fairness and good will contrast sharply with the corruption of the former Nazi regime. His real nemesis, though, is General Marvin—the type of bad-tempered American whose behavior Joppolo is continually having to apologize for. Joppolo has his hands full as he tries to fulfill basic needs like food and water, but he also wants to restore morale. One of his big tasks in this latter regard is to find a replacement for the town's bell, which was confiscated by the Nazis to be melted down into ammunition. Quirky Italian characters abound, from the head fisherman who refuses to set foot in a government office, to the town crier, who likes to put his own spin on proclamations. I haven't had this much fun reading about the military since I read Joseph Heller's Catch-22, which was a much more challenging read. Unlike Revolutionary Road, I think that this book has held up well over time.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett

Part of the enjoyment of reading this novel is in rooting against the self-righteous women you'll love to hate. The Junior Leaguers in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 60s, especially Hilly Holbrook, are leading the charge to encourage white families to build separate bathrooms for their black maids. On the other side of the battle against discrimination are the maids themselves, too frightened by the KKK and whatnot to take a stand, and one young white woman named Skeeter. Skeeter yearns to be a writer and manages to nab a job at the local newspaper providing tips on housekeeping. Since her privileged life has not afforded her any opportunity to develop any stain-removal skills, she turns to her friend Elizabeth's maid, Aibileen, on the sly. Skeeter then grabs the attention of an editor at Harper Row with her idea of writing a book based on interviews with black maids about their relationships with their employers. Eventually she becomes a pariah among her former friends, but she wins Aibileen's trust and also that of Minny, a maid whose sassy mouth has cost her a few jobs as well as her ability to find employment with Jackson's uppercrust. Minny works for Celia Foote, a woman with a white-trashy past and a husband who adores her. Celia has her own agenda, trying to gain acceptance by Hilly and her gang but doesn't stand a chance with the Southern gentry. Meanwhile, Skeeter can't find anyone who will tell her what happened to her family's maid, Constantine, who left town abruptly. The truth is a bit of a letdown after the buildup, but that's just a minor distraction. Stockett keeps up a brisk pace and lots of tension, as everyone, both white and black, clandestinely working on the book faces dire consequences if families, friends, or neighbors find out.