Monday, May 17, 2010

Savour The Moment

Last summer, while looking for an easier read to keep me company during the lazy season, I began reading Norah Roberts Bridal Quartet series. Vision in White, and Bed of Roses are delicately feminine, and this weeks book, and third great addition to the series, Savor the Moment, is no exception. This series is definitely an easy read, but Roberts has a talent for bringing the characters and their relationships to life, making their stories personable and very entertaining.

As little girls, MacKensie, Emma, Laurel, and Parker spent hours acting out their perfect make believe "I do" moments, and years later, their childhood fantasies became reality when they started their own all-inclusive wedding planning company. Emma assembles bouquets of delicately stunning flowers, MacKensie captures all the jubilant and emotional moments on film, Laurel bakes delectable and scrumptious desserts, and Parker oversees all the details, bringing them all into a harmonious partnership. The First two books focus on Mackenzie and Emma, while they each discover love and relationships in their own unique way, and as happily ever after continues in Savor the Moment, the attention is on Laurel and her fairytale romance with longtime crush and Parker's older brother, Del.

There is not much surprise, or thought provoking moments incorporated into the series, but Robert's has a way of crafting realistic people, who weave into each others lives so gracefully, that you can't help but want to share in their stories. Each of the characters, whether it's a male or female, has a distinct personality, and specific hobbies and interests that make it easy to find someone to relate to. Myself, being interested in photography, baking, and having a mild case of ADD when it comes to details and organization, found it easy to connect with more than once character at a time, and was left with a longing to know more about them all.

This is the kind of book that I would have loved to have read on a beach, with the sun on my back, cold drink in hand, and the freedom to relax for hours on end. I However, was not on the beach, so I settled for relaxed afternoons on the deck with refreshingly cold iced tea. It was easy to get lost in this book for hours on end, and lose all sense of time, because you didn't ever have to stop and think, or clear your head, in order to download more intricate information. At the same time, Savor the Moment, is an ideal book to pick up for fifteen minutes at a time, in order to relieve yourself from the stresses of the day, and be distracted by another world, if only for a little while.

Savor the Moment could stand completely on its own, but I relished the little things that you pick up from having read the other books in the series first. So that is my tip, read the books in order, for with each one you will receive a deeper understanding of the characters, their histories, and relationships.


Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

One of the first books I read for my 'Journey Through Literature' was Malcolm Gladwell's, The Tipping Point. Having thoroughly enjoyed it, I decided to read his second book, Blink: The power of Thinking Without Thinking. Gladwell has a dazzling ability to find commonality in diverse fields of study, as he displays again in this entertaining and illuminating look at how we make snap judgments about people's intentions, the authenticity of a work of art, even military strategy. Blink incorporates numerous interesting and profound examples that demonstrate the behavior of snap judgments, and like The Tipping Point, is a showcase of Gladwell's ability to recognize interesting things, and then bring them into conscious awareness so we actually realize these things are happening. Gladwell elegantly educates his readers through dissecting and simplifying the intricacies of fascinating but little-known fields, like professional food tasting, and shares his findings through great journalism and storytelling, making Blink a joy to read.

Blink is about rapid cognition, the sort of snap decision-making performed without thinking about how one is thinking, faster and often more correctly than the logical part of the brain can manage. Gladwell campaigns for snap judgments and mind reading with a gift for translating research into splendid storytelling. Building his case with scenes from a marriage, heart attack triage, speed dating, choking on the tennis court, selling cars, and military maneuvers, he persuades readers to think small and focus on the meaning of "thin slices" of behavior. The key is to rely on our adaptive unconscious, that provides us with instant and sophisticated information to warn of danger, read a stranger, or react to a new idea. Gladwell's conclusion, after studying how people make instant decisions in a wide range of fields from psychology to police work, is that we can make better instant judgments by training our mind and senses to focus on the most relevant facts—and that less input, as long as it's the right input, is better than more.

Gladwell is also careful to examine the flip side of this phenomenon: the times when "thin slicing" misleads us or gives us the wrong results. For instance, he presents examples where the mind works based on biases that don't necessarily enter the realm of conscious thought, but are nevertheless there, such as age, race, and height. The secret is knowing which information to discard and which to keep. Our brains are able to perform that work unconsciously; when rapid cognition breaks down, the brain has seized upon a more obvious but less correct predictor. Gladwell examines how race and gender affect car dealers' sales strategy, the effect of height on salary and promotion to top corporate positions, and unjustified police shootings of civilians to demonstrate that our unconscious biases have genuine and sometimes tragic consequences. He also examines how the wrong thin slice, in focus groups or in a single-sip test of soft drinks, can lead businesses to mistake consumer preferences.

Throughout the book, Gladwell introduces us to many people, and their stories and experiences of snap decisions. He has a talent for bringing these narratives to life, almost like a novel, and not only does he make these examples interesting and personal, but he keeps coming back to the handful that he has selected to incorporate into Blink. This makes it mush easier to follow what he is saying, having been introduced to the story already, and it keeps a clutter of examples from fogging up your mind.

I have always loved learning about a wide variety of topics, and reading Blink was another opportunity to not only learn something interesting, but learn something that effects me everyday. We have all heard someone, if not ourselves, say "I just knew", or "I had a feeling". This book explains the science behind that "feeling", and shows us what amazing things our mind is capable of doing, even when we are not consciously controlling it. Gladwell incorporated a few examples of the tests used to determine an individuals association with age, gender, or race, which is one of the things that continues to stick out in my mind, for I am largely a hands on learner. My tip for Blink, is go to to test and compare your own stated beliefs with your unconscious beliefs. This is also a great way to learn a bit more of what the book is about, and may help you decide it it's worth reading for you. 


Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Weed That Stings The Hangman's Bag

After reading The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley a couple of weeks ago, I couldn't wait to read Flavia, the remarkable 11 year old sleuth's, second adventure. The Weed That Strings The Hangman's Bag was a joy to read, much like the first book. It is another utterly beguiling murder mystery, that so elegantly leaves out all the bloodshed and darkness usually found in this genre, and focuses on chemical science, intelligent problem solving, and smart, quick witted thinking. Told with Flavia's sparkling narrative, the story is involved and intricate, filled with wit, gaiety, clever writing, and quirky, diverse characters that are so honest in their personalities, their stories and encounters will surely bring a smile to your face.

We are brought into the story, eavesdropping on Flavia, as she contemplates her own death, and how sorry her family would be if she were no longer alive. When preparing to return to her threadbare ancestral home, Flavia comes across the small time broadcast puppeteer and womanizer, Robert Porson, and his beautiful yet flawed assistant, Nialla, who's van had just broken down. After accepting the assistance of Flavia and the vicar in their hour of need, Porson agrees to put on a performance of Jack and the Beanstalk while waiting for the van to be repaired. But when Porson has an unfortunate rendezvous with electricity, and comes to his sudden death in the middle of his memorable performance, Flavia put's aside her chemistry experiments and schemes of vengeance, and sets out in search of Bishop’s Lacey’s deadliest secrets. Feigning an innocence entirely at odds with her shrewdness about adult doings, Flavia uses her skills in chemistry and questioning to figure out which of the many possible suspects murdered Rupert and why, and soon finds herself "untangling two deaths, separated by time but linked by the unlikeliest of threads".

Bradley deftly evokes the period, bringing irreverent and literate text together with humor and memorable personalities to produce an intelligent and amiable story. Perhaps the book's most appealing trait is its glorious ensemble of 1950 English eccentrics, thrown together in the Christiesque rural haven of Bishop's Lacey. The charismatic traveling puppeteer, the domineering vicar's wife, Flavia's evil, sneering sisters, the aberrant aunt, the disturbed but trusted retainer, the gossiping cook, a sinister bureaucrat from the BBC, and a handsome former German prisoner of war, come together with ever changing dynamics to add dimension to Flavia's perspective and character.

Entering Flavia's luminous and spontaneous world for a second time, was as much a delight for me as was my first encounter with her. Her smart, and often sarcastic remarks, her natural ability to think beyond the defined lines, and her fearless and importunate initiative, kept me thoroughly charmed and enthralled from page to page. 

The Weed That Strings The Hangman's Bag could be a stand alone book, but I recommend reading it only after you have fully engaged yourself in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. As Bradley intended, reading the books in order will give you a more thorough insight into Flavia's world, and her complex relationships with her antithetical family and the diverse neighborhood residents.