Sunday, April 30, 2006

Blink (Malcolm Gladwell)

I had no idea that Chef Boyardee's first name is Hector. Yes. Hector. And apparently when consumers choose canned ravioli, they want Hector's picture on the label to look like that of a real person. If he's too cartoony, people will think the ravioli doesn't taste as good (although of course they won't realize this is the reason why they think that). In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Gladwell explores these snap, unconscious decisions we make every day without even knowing it.

The exploration of these quick decisions are intriguing (such as in speed dating, the New Coke debacle, and what emotions politicians give away in their face) and terrifying (such as the policemen who shot Amadou Diallo). In some contexts, we can train our unconscious to make better, more-informed snap decisions, and in other cases, we need to learn not to rely on them (such as when these decisions are informed by stereotypes). Blink will definitely leave you questioning your decisions and your first impressions.

Next book up: Plan B by Anne Lammott

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Tipping Point (Malcolm Gladwell)

The Tipping Point, "that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once," is about social epidemics, such as the case of the stunning and dramatic revival of the once-square and forgotten Hush Puppies shoes, which became the hippest shoe you could wear in the mid-1990s, to use a prominent example in the book. Malcolm Gladwell, much like the Stev(ph)ens of Freakonomics, takes theory that could very easily be mind-numbing in someone else's hands and makes it exciting and revealing with clear examples.

Gladwell explores word of mouth, how it spreads, and the differences between those we take information from (such as restaurant advice or what kind of car to buy) and those we don't. For example, many may not know there was another man who took part in Paul Revere's midnight ride (I didn't). There's a reason we don't remember him. Most of the people he warned that night didn't remember him either. They were much less prepared than those who were warned by Revere. Turns out Revere would have been a supremely popular guy who everyone knew if he was around today. And that's part of what made him the perfect person to spread the message about the British.

And as we are in the age of information, if you're trying to sell a product, you have to be aware of the "clutter problem" in advertising. We're inundated with so much information, it's really hard to get our attention. "Coca-Cola paid $33 million for the rights to sponsor the 1992 Olympics, but despite a huge advertising push, only about 12 percent of TV viewers realized they were the official Olympic soft drink, and another 5 percent thought that Pepsi was the real sponsor."

Gladwell also shows how small modest changes can create a social epidemic. Blue's Clues, the highly popular children's show, took what worked best from Sesame Street, and then made it "stickier." Surprisingly, stuff most people would think made Sesame Street most effective (the humor that also worked with adults, creativity, and word play) was not what the creators of Blue's Clues kept. They made a very literal show, which turned out to be perfect for preschoolers, and they made it interactive. "Sometimes Steve will play dumb. He won't be able to find a certain clue that might be obvious to the audience at home and he'll look beseechingly at the camera. The idea is the same: to get the children watching to verbally participate, to become actively involved. If you watch Blue's Clues with a group of children, the success of this strategy is obvious. It's as if they're a group of diehard Yankee fans at a baseball game."

I go could on with every more interesting and surprising examples. Like how the degrees from Kevin Bacon isn't six, as most of us believe, but is instead 2.8312. I think saying that a book will make you think differently about the world is a fairly big statement, but I do think this book is one that can change your perception of everyday life.

Next book up: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Traveling Mercies (Anne Lamott)

What I like so much about Anne Lamott's writing is that not only is she very, very funny, she's also incredibly honest about her feelings. Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith explores Lamott's Christian faith. She talks about being raised mostly without religion: "My aunt Pat married a Jew, with a large Jewish family in tow, but they were not really into Moses Jews; they were bagelly Jews. My closest cousin was bar mitzvahed, but other than accusing you of anti-Semitism if you refused second helpings of my uncle Millard's food, they might as well have been Canadians."

In one chapter, Lamott recounts being stuck on a plane encountering some abrupt and terrifying turbulence (if you go to the This American Life's website, and type "episode 104" in the search box, you can listen to a streaming audio version of this story). She describes the man sitting next to her on the plane as "reading a book by a famous right-wing Christian novelist about the Apocalypse. A newspaper had asked me to review this book when it first came out, because its author and I are both Christians--although as I pointed out in my review, he's one of those right-wing Christians who thinks that Jesus is coming back next Tuesday right after lunch, and I am one of those left-wing Christians who thinks that perhaps this author is just spiritualizing his own hysteria."

And one of my favorite chapters is about one of Lamott's vacations to Mexico, where she goes to the beach and is discouraged to see all the young teenagers in bikinis. She talks about breaking through "Butt Mind." "I was not wearing a cover-up, not even a T-shirt. I had decided I was going to take my thighs and butt with me proudly wherever I went. I decided, in fact, on the way to the beach that I would treat them as if they were beloved elderly aunties, the kind who did embarassing things at the beach, like roll their stockings into tubes around their ankles, but whom I was proud of because they were so great in every real and important way. So we walked along, the three of us, the aunties and I, to meet Sam and our friends in the sand. I imagined that I could feel the aunties beaming, as if they had been held captive in a dark closet too long, like Patty Hearst. Freed finally to stroll on a sandy Mexican beach: what a beautiful story. It did not trouble me that parts of my body--the auntie parts-- kept moving even after I had come to a full halt. Who cares? People just need to be soft and clean."
(Lamott does feel a bit embarassed by the aunties later in the chapter.)

This book is not preachy or full of flashing lights and buzzers. It's very funny, heartbreaking, and touching. For Lamott, miracles are in the smaller moments of life.

Next book up: The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Opposite of Fate (Amy Tan)

I heard about Amy Tan's nonfiction book The Opposite of Fate on To The Best of Our Knowledge, a national public radio program produced in Madison (you can also download podcasts of the show). In the interview Tan talks about being caught between two cultures, between Chinese fate (from her mother) and Christian faith (from her father). She mentions that when she was a little girl, she told her mother (most likely as an excuse not to brush her teeth that night) there was a ghost in the bathroom. Instead of turning on the bathroom light to show her daughter the ghost didn't exist, Tan's mother took her to the bathroom and said, excitedly, "Where are they? Show me."

I've read The Joy Luck Club, and found Tan's writing to be beautiful and haunting. The Opposite of Fate starts out with a section just as haunting as her fiction. Tan discusses her father's and brother's deaths, which occurred in the same year, and the murder of one of her best friends (whose home she had been in the night before the crime). Although this opening section is probably the most serious and heaviest, I can see why it does need to be first as she returns to these themes often (the book is composed of various essays, speeches, and musings Tan has written throughout the years). Tan explores other mysteries and many often return to her mother. Her mother comes to believe that Tan's grandmother inhabits her computer, and Tan once finds her mother talking to the computer, "Do you still love me? Do you miss me?"

There are other lighthearted moments in the book, such as Tan's discovery of all the erroneous information about her on the Internet and her adventures with the Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock band full of writers including Dave Barry, Stephen King, and Barbara Kingsolver. There are also a few very literary pieces in the book, which got a little too academic for me, but I didn't mind that much as I enjoyed the rest of the book so much with its very personal stories about Tan's family and life.

Next book up: To be determined . . . I'm going to the library this evening to pick up a bunch of books I have on hold, but I'm not sure yet which one I'll read first.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Sister Noon (Karen Joy Fowler)

Sister Noon, a historical novel by Karen Joy Fowler set in San Francisco, stands out from many other historical novels I've read. It begins like a Robert Altman film, with many characters introduced mid-conversation while you try to figure out who is who and what in the world is going on. But, like an Altman film, the confusion isn't frustrating because the writing and mystery is so good that you want to keep reading to figure out what's going on in this strange, long-forgotten, magical world. The story includes an orphanage called the Brown Ark, a middle-aged "spinster" easily swayed by her imagination and adventures in novels, and a powerful woman who is black, but used to pass as white, and who has been accused both of baby farming and voodoo.

The suspense continues throughout the book, with brief chapters that leave you hanging and wanting to continue on to the next. Although I enjoyed this book, I thought the two other Fowler books I've read (The Jane Austen Book Club and The Sweetheart Season) were even better than this one, but all three definitely showcase what a great writer and storyteller Fowler is.

Next book up: The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan