Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Nightingale (Kristin Hannah)

After I finished Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale, I had to sit with it for quite a few days before writing the review. It affected me deeply; every character stays with you long after the story is done.

France in 1939 -- as the readers, we know what's coming. The characters may have an inkling, but they could never guess the magnitude of what stands before them. Vianne Mauriac's husband is sent to the Front, but she never believes that the Nazis will invade France. When the inevitable happens, Vianne is forced to take in an enemy officer; every day brings one danger after another.

Vianne could not be more unlike her sister, Isabelle. While Vianne wants to keep her head down and not draw attention to herself, Isabella wants to help the resistance any way she can, no matter the consequences. She also falls deeply in love with a fellow fighter, Gaeten.

One can't even imagine all the dangers faced in The Nightingale, and it is made all the more horrifying by the fact that much of this really happened. But through Isabelle's determination to fight and Vianne's motherly desire to save her daughter at all costs comes a book that is also powerfully uplifting. I couldn't recommend it more.


Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Tyranny of Metrics (Jerry Z. Muller)

Every survey and annual performance self-review you take and each quarterly earnings report your employer releases are full of items that become metricized data. The Tyranny Of Metrics is Jerry Z. Muller’s “measured” and systematic retort to the constant barrage of data and analysis when it is misapplied.

The overarching theme of this book is incredibly valid; Muller’s central argument is that data measurement isn’t done with the best of intents and that data itself can be gamed, manipulated, or bogged down into administrative, bureaucratic hell. From increasing the numbers of “data wonks” (my term) who analyze and report on metrics to increasing the amount of bureaucrats who synthesize data, the world is drowning in information. Muller argues that while some of this information gathering has had positive impacts, it often yields to cutting corners, increased costs, cheating and gaming the system to achieve a desired result, or flat out dishonesty in the guise of ensuring the public knows how good you are. Rankings, outcomes, and other “measures of success” are called into question as Muller pulls out numerous examples to counter the want for more data and more metrics in our society.

While Muller’s passion and arguments are at their strongest, many of the examples and case studies read anecdotally. It would have been impressive to see more concrete examples of gamesmanship and corner cutting incorporated into his book, including stories where it cost organizations their reputation and more. There were some examples, especially in the financial realm, but more would have helped strengthen the case. Regardless, The Tyranny Of Metrics is deserving of consideration for all types of organizations to ensure that data gathering is done with the right purpose.


Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Library Book (Susan Orlean)

Bibliophiles rejoice! Renowned New Yorker reporter Susan Orlean has written something just for us! The Library Book is the perfect choice for all those who love books about books.

It is probable that many people have never even heard of the Los Angeles Public Library fire of 1986. This was a fire that had disastrous consequences, with hundreds of thousands of books destroyed and several more thousand damaged. Arson was immediately suspected, and Orlean spends a fair amount of time diving into the background of the prime suspect, along with his trial. However, this is just one part The Library Book. Along with the investigation, Orlean also effortlessly weaves chapters about the history of the library itself with the institution in modern day. If you've ever wanted to know what it's like to take on such a monumental undertaking as the Los Angelic Public Library system, it's all in here.

Orlean goes to great lengths to explain that a library is so much more than just books. All people are welcomed to take advantage of everything it has to offer, from computer access to just getting out of the cold. This is a wonderful love letter to libraries everywhere.


Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Adam Smith: Father of Economics (Jesse Norman)

In Adam Smith: Father of Economics, author Jesse Norman looks at an individual who is often considered one of the fathers of modern economic thought. Smith’s life, theories, and the application of his beliefs to the modern challenges that we face are the subject of Norman’s book, with the author taking the protagonist position that Smith’s views are often used in error and not thoroughly appreciated by his supporters, detractors, and by many in the economic field.
Adam Smith is divided into three parts. Smith’s life and energies devoted to his signature works are the subjects of the first part, with the second devoted to the content that makes up the signature works and theories that Smith espoused. Last, Norman tackles Smith’s impact on capitalism and how his belief system is critical in shaping the challenges that modern capitalism faces today. Norman advocates the need for capitalist reform through effective regulations and smarter government. He often cites that supporters and detractors of Smith’s views do not fully understand and appreciate Smith’s beliefs that economies work best when there is balance and equilibrium in government and business. The author argues that Smith believes that the best interests of the public can come apart “when markets cease to function well”, citing 2008’s financial crisis and the increase in Western financial  inequality as symptoms of that.

Norman pushes for a renewed introspection into Smith’s words and beliefs and argues that society must rise to the challenges that it faces, arguing for respectful debate in that process. Adam Smith is a respectful, decent look at a man who has helped shape modern economics and modern capitalism. If past is prologue, it may pay heed to turn our views back a bit and look at just what Smith believed in as economic policy and philosophy continues to evolve. Norman makes that his very valid central point in this effective book.


Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Once Upon a River (Diane Setterfield)

I was anxiously awaiting getting my hands on a copy of Diane Setterfield's Once Upon a River. I adored The Thirteenth Tale and had mixed feelings about Bellman & Black, so I was interested to see where her latest would fall. The answer is square in the middle.

It's very difficult to even do a synopsis of Once Upon a River. Some of it is fantastical, some is tragedy, and part of it is romance. One night, an injured man opens the door to a packed inn on the Thames. In his arms is a little girl; she is pronounced dead but miraculously awakens, later to be claimed by three different families as one of their own. There is a large cast of characters to keep straight as the story unwinds to its conclusion; some are far more interesting than the rest.

Once Upon a River is terribly long-winded. It's an ambitious read and one of those books that you feel guilty for not liking as much as you did. But when it all comes down to it, Setterfield writes exquisitely and is always eager to take you on her journey with her.


Monday, November 5, 2018

A Spark of Light (Jodi Picoult)

I've been a big fan of the great Jodi Picoult since the beginning and always look forward to her books with much excitement. Most of her novels have attained well-earned fours and fives on this site, but there have been some that I've liked less (I'm looking at you Sing You Home!). For me, A Spark of Light falls squarely in the middle of the pack.

As Picoult fans know, she often takes on a hot button issue in her books -- this time, it's abortion. Hugh McElroy is called to the scene of a hostage situation at an abortion clinic; the situation gets even more devastating for Hugh when he finds out that his teenage daughter is in there. He needs to put his questions aside about why she is there in the first place in order to save her and all the other people inside. What is interesting about A Spark of Light is that it is told backwards in time. Some reviewers have commented that, for them, it didn't add anything to the plot to do that, but for me, it did. Knowing what was going to happen to each character first made everything that came before much more powerful.

What didn't work for me was the preachy tone of the book. It's obviously fine for an author to take a side in his or her own work, but it needs to be woven naturally into the story. It's jarring as a reader for the narrative to abruptly stop for characters to have a 3-page conversation about the issue. For that reason, I can't give my usual 4 or 5 to Picoult's latest.