Book Review: “Talking to Strangers” by Malcom Gladwell

Talking to Strangers” examines how our internal and cultural biases affect our interactions and perceptions of the people around us.

Early in the book, Gladwell mentions a study that gets right to the heart of the book and was really eye opening for me.

It’s a study into the “illusion of asymmetric insight” and shows us how we think we’re good an interpreting what a stranger is thinking or their intentions (spoiler: we’re actually really horrible at it).

Participants were required to complete a set of words with missing letters and then asked what the results say about them.

For example, someone was given “TOU _ _”. Some people would fill in the blanks as “TOUGH” and others would put “TOUCH”.

Afterward, the participant was asked if they think these results reflect their beliefs and core values. Nearly every participant said their word choices were random and had no relation on how they view the world.

Then they were given a random set of words from other people and asked the same question: What do you think these word choices say about these strangers?

Everyone had a strong opinion within literally minutes of being asked the same question about themselves! “Whoever wrote these sounds pretty vain“, or “this person sounds very obsessed with money and power.

Crazy, right?

The book is full of studies like this, as well as specific examples from real life interactions like this (some with very tragic consequences) and takes a deeper look into why things might have played out the way they did — from a traffic stop in Texas that went very wrong, broken diplomatic promises before World War II, a high-profile sexual assault that occurred at Stanford, and even looking into the motivations of people who try to commit suicide and our collective misunderstanding as to why and where these things happen.

I went into this book not knowing exactly what it was about. I thought, “Oh! New Malcom Gladwell book and it seems to be getting some good reviews, let’s go for it”. It took around a chapter or two for me to really get into the book and see where it was going, but when things finally clicked for me, this was fascinating and enlightening look at every day interactions.

Book Review: Gulp – Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another Mary Roach classic. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal takes us through the body’s digestive tract. Like many books by Mary Roach, it’s sometimes gross, often hilarious, and always informative. Bonus points for beginning the story with the smell of beer and wine right here in Oakland at Beer Revolution.

She does a great job sharing relevant stories and interesting facts about each part of our digestive tract, among them:

* How smell influences what we taste
* Why we prefer crispy foods
* The history of scientific research into digestion through “fistulated holes”
* Fiber: the munchies, the myth, and the legend
* Did Elvis die from being constipated
* And lots and lots of stories related to the science of studying poo

Needless to say, this isn’t a book you want to read while eating lunch. But it did elicit a number of laughs and giggles from me while I took public transit to and from work each day. Overall, it was a pretty enjoyable and informative read. If you’ve enjoyed anything from Mary Roach before, I’d highly recommend this as well.

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Book Review: The Orphan Master’s Son

The Orphan Master's Son
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Orphan Master’s Son follows the life of Pak Jun Do, a young boy who lives in a North Korean orphanage with his father, the Orphan Master.

What ultimately transpires is a pretty gripping tale following the life of Jun Do as he grows up and lives life under the oppressive totalarian regime of Kim Jong Il. He ultimately joins to military and is assigned to tunnel duty — building tunnels for infiltration into South Korea. One day, he is visited by an officer and assigned a new task that will ultimately change his life, forever.

Some of my favorite chapters are written in an entertaining and light hearted manner — providing well timed, nice (almost comic) relief from some of the heavier parts of the book. They make you feel as if you’re listening to the latest daily propaganda dispatch from a nearby loudspeaker: “CITIZENS! Today is the Dear Leader’s birthday! Help us celebrate by DOUBLING your output quotas! Remember, it’s the only way to prevent a sneak attack by those imperialist aggressors!”

I don’t want to spoil much more of the story. There are twists and turns in the plot that will cause your jaw to drop. There are other parts that will potentially cause you to tear up. You really do feel as if someone peeled back a curtain, and you’re getting a genuine look inside North Korea.

This is a great book for any book club, as it has amazing potential for discussing fate versus free will, loyalty, love, fidelity, and courage. I often found myself laying awake at night, thinking about some of these central themes in the book.

My ultimate rating is 5 / 5 stars — I debated giving it 4 as I read along, but I think some of the deeper themes of the book, and the fact that it was so thought provoking, makes me belive it’s easily worth all 5 stars.

Forgive me for my hyperbole, but this was one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read since The Kite Runner. I highly recommend it!

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Book Review: Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I heard that Walter Isaacson was doing the Steve Jobs biography, I was quite excited about the potential. I loved his biographies on Albert Einstein and Ben Franklin (and his Henry Kissinger bio has been highly recommended). Needless to say, it was an instant pre-order.

The biography takes a look at the various parts of Steve’s life, from his upbringing as an adopted child, to his care free lifestyle and travels through India, to starting a company, getting kicked out, and then ultimately coming back.

Overall, the book was an interesting read and had some fascinating nuggets of information. But I found myself disappointed as I read further and further into the book. Isaacson had unprecedented access to Steve Jobs. I was really hoping that he could get inside his head, pick him apart, and come up with what made him tick, his thought processes, etc.

Unfortunately, he really didn’t. What we’re instead left with is a superficial look at Steve’s life in the first half of the book, and a look at Apple’s various product launches in the second half of the book. As I write this, news comes out today that Isaacson is planning an addendum to the Jobs biography in the future — adding more information and filling in some gaps.

Overall, the book was still an interesting read, and I think anyone who is a fan of technology will find it enjoyable. I just wish it was more fulfilling.

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Book Review: The Cellist of Sarajevo

The Cellist of SarajevoThe Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The “Cellist of Sarajevo” is a fictional account following the lives of four people struggling to survive during the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War of the early 1990’s. For those who don’t have much time devoted to reading, this book is a quick read.

The story itself is sometimes emotional, sometimes raw, and often depressing as it alternates between the lives of four characters (none of whom know each other) who struggle to survive. It begins when a Serbian mortar shell lands in the middle of a crowded market, killing 22 people and injuring scores more. A man living in an apartment near the market witnesses the explosion and subsequent deaths of many of his friends.

In the aftermath of this particularly gruesome attack, he vows to play Albinono’s Adagio in G Minor on his cello in the market, at the same spot and same time the shell exploded, for 22 days — one day for each person killed. (Why the story makes a big deal of the particular piece the cellist plays, I’m not sure — perhaps because it’s such a sad instrumental?)

Over the course of 22 days, the story shifts between 3 other characters, one who is a female sniper in the resistance (and confronts personal demons over the morality of her killings), an old man who became withdrawn and isolated because of the war (in order to protect himself from becoming too close to anyone else who might die), and a father who must make a dangerous trek every few days to provide food and water for his wife and children.

The personal conflicts each character deals with, because of and in addition to the war make for a somber story. While the story is fictitious, it provides a seemingly accurate and compelling portrayal of what life was like under a sieged city; indiscriminate shelling, snipers picking off innocent people, government corruption, lack of aid, food, water, or information.

Another aspect I thought was particularly interesting was the author’s portrayal of the morbid sense of humor the citizens of Sarajevo adopted during the situation. Jokes such as “Oh, you don’t want coffee? Now I can take a shower [with the small pot of water]” or “Don’t worry, I think the sniper today is just a bad shot!” show how people cope and still try to make the best of an unfortunate situation.

The Cellist of Sarajevo struck a personal chord with me, thanks to having a few friends who lived in or around the Balkans during the actual war. Another friend worked with a humanitarian organization inside Sarajevo during the siege! Their vivid and intense accounts of life meshed well with what this story described.

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Book Review: Catching Fire

Catching Fire (Hunger Games, #2)Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

After only two days of reading, I have just finished the second book in the Hunger Games series, “Catching Fire.” The first book was an equally quick read and provided an interesting story set in a post apocalyptic American future. 

The second story continues where the first left off, with Katniss, the main protagonist, coping with the ramifications of her controversial and seemingly rebellious win in the Hunger Games. This win allowed her and her partner, Peeta (a pathetically sad  example of a man and a generally loathsome character), to survive — something unprecedented since there’s only supposed to be one winner (think of it as a gladiator style competition, but with kids).

Sadly, the first half of the book comprises of a woe-is-me story that wastes the reader’s time with almost nothing that advances the story. There’s hints of a rebellion in other districts and the government seems to know everything that Katniss does (even when she illegally hunts in the wilderness outside her district and kisses a childhood friend).

Which is all the more perplexing when she ventures back out into the woods and encounters refugees from another district talking of rebellion. It’s like she completely forgot about what happened in the opening pages of the story with regard to the President’s warning. 

Halfway through the book, the story takes a predictable turn and forces Katniss and Peeta back into the arena. Fantastic! We basically get to re-read book one all over again. There’s some slight differences. People seem to be more angry with the government and the tributes (gladiators) seem to bond prior to the games.

Once in the arena, the story dissolved into a poor tale of survival as Katniss and others grouped up to survive. She struggles with issues of trust, love, and survival — including trying to escape a fog that acts like a nerve agent, mutant killer monkeys, crazy talking birds, random tsunamis, and other assorted lethal traps. The whole time, Peeta worries over protecting Katniss, who can clearly handle him and anything else that comes her way. Like I said, we’re basically re-reading the first book, word for word.

The ending provides an abrupt, untidy, unsatisfying, yet completely predictable conclusion to the Games. A conspiracy among the other tributes to keep Katniss alive has been carried out all along, without Katniss (or the all knowing government) aware of it. The ending simply serves to setup book three. Great.

Sadly, I have no desire to read book three, yet I feel I must. It’s like how I started feeling about Lost — started off interesting, then get sloppy, but I’ve put all this time into it, so I must see how everything concludes.

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Book Review: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the VoidPacking for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mary Roach has basically killed my desire to ever be an astronaut.

However, that’s not to say this book is bad. It’s actually a quick, very enjoyable, and entertaining read. But she tackles many of the less glamorous things astronauts must do or cope with — from having every second of their lives and missions pre-planned, to the difficulties involved in going to the restroom, or even eating the specialized food.

She walks us through the history of the space program while packing in quirky stories and mission transcripts (“Here’s another goddamn turd. What’s the matter with you guys?”), from its inception post World War II and sending monkeys into space to testing the effects of zero gravity environments on humans.

There were a number of times that I laughed out loud while reading this book on the bus or in a train and I noticed passengers sitting next to me would try to steal glances of the book I was reading. I can only imagine what kind of freak the person thought I was when they read something like, “Then along came Joseph Tash and his sea urchin splooge.”

Anyway, the book is a great read for anyone interested in the space program and presents the finer, less glamorous details in an amusing and fun to read manner.

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