Tag Archives: Connections

Connection

What the Dog Saw and other adventures by Malcolm Gladwell (Back Bay Books; $16.99; 410 pages)

Learning is so much fun when Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers) is the instructor.   Gladwell’s calm but engaging style is the common thread in this anthology composed of nineteen essays previously published in the New Yorker magazine.   There is just enough cohesion among the essays to  make for smooth transitions.   Yes, Gladwell cites some facts and studies used by other authors; however, his use of the material takes on a new look when seen through his question and answer format.

This reviewer was fascinated by the piece titled, “The Ketchup Conundrum.”   The reader is presented with the statements, “Mustard now comes in dozens of varieties.   Why has ketchup stayed the same?”   This is a condiment that dominates most others, whether it’s in a booth at a burger joint or on a family’s kitchen table.   One brand in particular rises above the rest in taste tests, and that’s Heinz.   Gladwell provides a charming history of ketchup along with the various challenges that have been made to the Heinz dominance of the field.   After reading the essay, I felt compelled to buy a bottle of Heinz for my own taste test.   Mind you, our household is rarely the scene of actual cooking so I had to be creative in using my purchase.   Happily, the flavor of Heinz blends perfectly with cottage cheese resulting in a pseudo-macaroni and cheese flavor without the carbs.

The preceding example is indicative of the connections that can be made to the everyday life of the reader.   This anthology is by no means a heavy-duty literary work; rather, it prompts conversations with family and friends.   Isn’t that what knowledge does?

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A copy of the book was purchased for her.

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A Room of Our Own

At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson (Doubleday; $28.95: 448 pages)

Veteran author Bill Bryson delights in skewering the arrogant rich in England and the United States, particularly the folks who lived in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in this quirky survey book.   His litany of the vast number of servants, silverware and foodstuffs at meals makes this point.   The premise of the book is that an individual home is an excellent jumping off point to a wide variety of subjects.   Bryson happens to live in a former church rectory that was built in 1851.   While his home is not typical of most, it is clearly an excellent basis for an historical survey.   This is a loosely structured stroll through many centuries and cultures with Bryson as the tour guide.   He was born in the United States and educated here; however, his manner of speaking is clearly influenced by his long-time residence in England.

The notion of inventiveness and progress being a function of opportunity and dedication to an idea is a thread that runs through many chapters, each of which focuses on a particular room or area of his home.   The associations are reminiscent of the Public Broadcast System series, Connections, narrated by James Burke.   The tangents developed within each chapter tend to take the reader a bit far afield from the room being featured.   The basement, for example, correlates to the notion of a sturdy underpinning for the home which evolves into an explanation of the evolution of construction, culminating in the Eiffel Tower.   This is clearly a case of going from the mundane to the sublime in a matter of pages.

Conversely, the study, a room which might easily provide a scenario related to reading, education and leisure time, instead becomes the scene of mice and extermination.   The chapter is clearly the most disconcerting as it focuses on the vermin and critters with which we share our homes.   Bryson seems to delight in the mind-numbing and chilling statistics for mouse and rat populations of the past and present.   He concludes the chapter with the smallest living creatures in our homes and on our persons, namely insects and microbes.

Underlying the premise is a charming and unexpected feature.   Many of the chapters draw attention to the unsung heroes who were the real inventors as opposed to the persons who made vast sums of money and achieved fame.   Included for good measure are the names of men who almost got it right but for a twist or turn in their path have not even made it to footnote status in history.

At Home is worth the reader’s effort, but the author may remind the reader of an entertaining college professor who expects a fair amount of retention of his lecture points.   It is a safe choice for history buffs along with the reminder that the accuracy of any non-fiction book is subject to a point-in-time qualifier.   Some conclusions by the author appear to be made to the advantage of his effort to make clever connections.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.   At Home will be released by Doubleday on Tuesday, October 5, 2010.

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Easy as 1-2-3

Reviewing the Nonfiction Book (as simple as 1-2-3)

The typical nonfiction book is going to deal with either history, or sports, or functions as a survey book.   The term survey book refers to one that covers a field in a technical and sometimes textbook-like fashion.   In most cases, survey book authors who seek to appeal to a broad audience will keep their language as non-technical as possible, but there are exceptions.

The reader or reviewer encountering a survey book may want to consider at least three questions in judging its success.   The first is, “Does this book tell me anything I do not already know?”   We may enjoy learning new things, but the typical reader selects a survey book touching on a subject that he/she knows something about (and, in some cases, a lot about).

Let’s say, hypothetically, that all during my life I have been extremely fascinated by the Edsel automobile.   I’ve read every newspaper article about the car, every car magazine article I can find, and everything I can find on the web.   Now let’s presume that one Joseph Von Schmoewinkle has released a book entitled, The Absolutely, Definitely, Complete Edsel Book.   If everything in the book repeats things I’ve read, I am going to be disappointed.   Very, very disappointed.   This is when a reviewer says – quite fairly – that this book could have been put together by a college student.   For such is not writing, it’s compiling.

The second question is, “Are the items covered in the survey book actually related to each other?”   The authors of survey books tend to view themselves as Big Picture figures.   They want to cover many developments on the subject at hand, past and present, and tell you that they’re all somehow related.   Except that sometimes they are not.   I refer to this as the “Connections” virus.

Some of you may remember the “Connections” show on public television in which the viewer was told that virtually everything was related (no matter how tenuously) to everything else.   In this series, if a kindergartener missed school one day it was somehow connected to Man’s successful landing on the moon.

Yes, it was entertaining.   The only problem being that life is not like this…  At least not usually.

If you find yourself reading a book that makes such outlandish stretches, you will likely find yourself shaking your head as if to say, “Not likely.”

The third question is, “Did this book make me think about the subject in a new way?”   Some people call this the “a-ha” phenomenon.   A really good survey book will cause you to re-think how you think about things.   When you do, it will seem perfectly logical, but only the very best nonfiction writers are able to get you to that destination.

If you read a very good nonfiction book and you experience just one, two or three “a-ha” moments, you will know that your money has been well spent.   The reviewer who experiences those moments before you do will, no doubt, recommend the book without reservation.

This article is the third in a continuing series.   Note:  The comments about the Edsel survey book in this article do not refer to the actual nonfiction book Disaster in Dearborn: The Story of the Edsel, which sounds  like an interesting read.

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