A President's Reflections

Latest books

Posted on January 24, 2009

I had a lot of good feedback on earlier posts regarding recent books read, so thought to offer an update.  There’s nothing like prolonged recovery from an illness and plane rides (I’m on the west coast) to provide opportunities to lose oneself in a good book.  My recent favorites:

Life of Pi, winner of the 2002 Man Booker Prize.  This compelling novel is one part travel adventure yarn, one part fable, one part survivor and shipwreck tale, and one part philosophical drama (in the vein of Bhuddist parables that raise more questions than they answer).  Yann Martel is a wonderful storyteller that somehow pulls the reader into fantatsical scenes that feel absolutely believable and true.  The big questions come at the end and I won’t ruin it for you, but I do urge you to read it along with others because you need to have the hours of conversation the book invites upon completion.  I’m not sure I think it’s very profound really, but that too is one of the interesting questions to debate and the story itself is a delight.

Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell.  Okay, the critics are right.  It’s not as compelling as The Tipping Point or Blink, his earlier hit books, but it’s also not as bad as some have argued.  While it may simply amplify what we all know (Yes, Malcolm, even superstars are in large measure products of the worlds that produce them.), he tells good and interesting stories and there is something comforting about looking past our culture’s reverance for the individual talent and the myths we build around it.  Gladwell also helps us be a bit more comfortable with the generalizations we might indeed make about one group or another, though we always want to be careful in doing so.  A better read than you might be hearing from those with Gladwell fatigue.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson.  Don’t bother if you are under 45-years-old or an anthropologist wanting to feel what it meant to grow up in America in the 1950s.  Okay, there may be a few young ‘uns who will connect with those ageless aspects of growing up that Bryson so hilariously describes: trying to understand adults, mounting sexual curiosity, embarassing parents, the ever present chance of mortification before peers, and more.  But for anyone who grew up in the era there is about this book a nostalgic glow and even longing for a world now long gone and a reminder that with all that was wrong about that age (and Bryson has great fun with those shortcomings), there was much that was lovely for a child.  You will also laugh out loud at many passages, though if you haven’t read any Bryson start with his superb Walk in the Woods.

The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell.  I’ve confessed elsewhere in my blog that I’m a history nerd, but this book made me absolutely embarassed at the yawning gap that was my historical knowledge of Puritan Boston.  Moreover, Vowell reveals just how amazing was the time and how impoverished is the popular conception of the Puritans (who didn’t help their reputation at all times I’ll admit).  The era was peopled with larger-than-life characters like John Winthrop (a communitarian when at his best and trying hard as possible to keep his fragile colony together), the amazing Roger Williams (as Vowell says, a man hard to like but easy to love), and Anne Hutchinson, perhaps America’s first feminist long before the word was used.  And they lived and worked and competed and schemed at an amazingly tumultuous time.  As always, Vowell’s sardonic humor makes it all go down easily.

Disrupting Class, How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, by Clayton Christensen.  Clayton is an old friend, a member of the SNHU Board of Trustees, and a brilliant faculty member at the Harvard Business School.  His early book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, was a run-away best-seller and both helped explain and then shape how disruptive technologies completely upended well established industries and companies (think Amazon to Main Street bookstores; MP3s to the music industry; desktop computers to large mainframes).  Clay now turns his attention to one of the more complex, well-established, and intractable areas of American society: K-12 education.  He presents a persuasive argument for a new model that uses technology to finally individualize instruction and reform how learning takes place in our schools. I am a wholehearted believer in Clay’s model of how innovation occurs and the book has me thinking about how we can innovate at SNHU, even if is focus is on K-12.

The Art of racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein.  I love dogs.  I love my dog, Annie.  But I hate dog books and stories.  I won’t see Marly and Me.  I could care less that George Bush’s dog Barney has a new book (whatever the heck that really means) and if Obama gets a dog I hope he sticks to being a dog and has no literary aspirations whatsoever.  So why did I read this novel with a bog narrator, Enzo?  Maybe I was feverish at the time and also everyone seems to love this novel (see the Amazon reviews — five-star after five-star).  Truth be told, Enzo is a wonderful character, Bhudda-like in many ways or at least on his way to enlightenment.  However, the plot and the characters and the credibility-straining turns of fate, are just too much.  Yes, life can be like racing and the metaphor is workable enough (mostly because of Enzo’s passion for it) and life can get hard, like racing in the rain, but really I just wanted Enzo to go Cujo and kill the other characters in their sleep and to set off to write his screen play and star as himself in a movie.  That might be one dog movie I’d watch.

2 thoughts on “Latest books

  1. Trish Dionne says:

    What source do you most rely on for book recommendations?

  2. Paul Leblanc says:

    Oh God — so many sources: friends, family, our daughters (both voracious readers), people ate work, book reviews. The real problem is that there are too many books and not enough time.

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