Outliers

I’ve been a bad flash fiction writer- I’ve had a story sitting in my draft pile for weeks, and I just haven’t had the creative energy to finish it.  Not that I have nothing there- on the contrary, I’m only about 100 words away from the limit, which is a problem in itself, as I have an approximate idea of where the story is headed but I know that 100 words is nowhere near enough to wrap things up.  Which means I’ve got to go and do some chopping.  I’m also perhaps dragging my feet on this story because the next one I’ve got lined up is, per my friend’s request, a mystery.  I’m not a big fan of mysteries- mainly because I get impatient and I skip ahead to the ending (thus rendering the point of a mystery moot.)  We shall see what my brain comes up with (disclaimer coming out now so no one throws rotten tomatoes my way when you read it.)

I did recently finish Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers- The Story of Success in one sitting and found it very intriguing.  Like his other book that I read (The Tipping Point) Gladwell takes very broad ideas and explains them in very simple terms for us laymen to read and actually grasp.  It takes stats and facts from studies but integrates them with anecdotes, personal histories, cultural backgrounds, and more so that everything he says just seems like plain common sense when you read it.  (His theory: you need 10,000+ hours of practice at something before you’re considered a genius/master/outlier.  Anything less makes you good and maybe great, but not brilliant, like Mozart.)  Also, extraordinary people are made from a combination of luck, the right circumstances, higher skill level/intelligence than most people (but not necessarily all people), the ability to spot and seize opportunities, and just plain old-fashioned hard work.

Whether or not you fully buy into his premise is up to you, but it’s a fairly quick read and certainly makes you reconsider the genius of Mozart or the brilliance of Bill Gates or even the reason why many Asian students are better at math than the other students (this Asian student is an exception- my parents recognized that my interests and strengths lay with the liberal and creative arts and thus didn’t force me to become a doctor.)

Though Gladwell didn’t need to go into the history and culture of rice farming in East Asia to talk about Asian students’ academic success.  Amy Chua, aka the Tiger Mom, (or any Asian parent) would probably tell you that the secret to a successful student is a combination of: instilling good work habits with discipline and practice, stressing the importance of education and not being a disgrace to the motherland by being a crappy student (my parents never actually said that but stories of kids in China going to school on weekends were not lost on me), threatening to take away certain beloved items or hobbies (and I knew darn well that my parents would make good on their vows), and making sure that kids early on understand that an A- is NOT an A (I think A+ should count for more than 4.0 in college. Just saying.)

Weekend in Review: Books, Paintings, and Sushi

Spent last weekend with a whirlwind trip to San Francisco that mostly involved a lot of traveling as this time I took some public transportation and drove up with 2 friends and a cat (not my own) instead of flying.

I attempted to make sushi for the first time with my friends with the help of a sushi mold (ie a plastic tray where you place the seaweed/rice/filling and it helps you keep it all nice and tidy when you cut it) and although it wasn’t very professional looking, all that matters is the taste, right?  And you definitely can’t go wrong with fresh fish, rice, and veggies.  The purple in some of the rice is from furikake we added.  Behold!

SushiI also stopped by the de Young Museum and saw a painting that I’ve wanted to see for years: Vermeer’s “Girl With A Pearl Earring.”  I first saw the painting on the cover of a YA novel was curious about the beautifully mysterious girl.  I read about the equally mysterious painter Vermeer and read the novel of the same name by Tracey Chevalier (which imagines who this model was and her relationship with the painter) and then subsequently watched the movie based on the novel starring a young Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth.  I love the movie.  Not because I think that it’s the greatest film of all time, but I absolutely love the way it was made.  Every scene in the movie is shot like a Vermeer painting- the posing, the colors, the lighting.  If you watch the movie and pause it at random spots, the probability of it showing a scene that Vermeer would have painted is high.

So I’ve been dying to see the real thing for years, but resigned myself for a long wait since I have no plans to visit The Hague anytime soon.  Imagine my happy surprise when I heard it was visiting SF!  When I saw the painting in person I wanted to just stand there for hours (like a creeper) and soak it all in- it was smaller than I imagined (most famous paintings usually are) but it was so perfect.  The restoration really made it seem brand new.  The invisible brushstrokes, the lighting, the flawlessness of her skin and the pearl earring- it was beautiful.  I highly recommend the exhibit for anyone in the Bay Area.

In other literary news, I just finished the fantasy novel The Lost Gate by Orson Scott Card.  I rate it a “meh.”  Mostly because the magic in it required me to consider physics, and out of all the science classes I took in school, I bombed physics the hardest.  I spent a good deal of the book trying to wrap my head around the magical concepts, giving up (because my brain is no longer wired to attempt advanced scientific possibilities anymore) and then moving on without fully getting what was going on.  And the protagonist is a smart ass 13-year old.  If I was a teen, I’d probably be more sympathetic to his character and find him funny.  As an adult, I just find it annoying.  That’s not Card’s fault, I will admit that I was just as bratty and exasperating at that age as well.  But that doesn’t mean I want to read about it.

I also realized I ate out five days this week.  Wow.  New record for me (and not in a good way.)

American Gods

When I read a book for pleasure, I always read it twice in a row. The first time around, I read it quickly, picking up only vital pieces of information and skimming over long descriptions and lengthy dialogues that don’t help to move the plot forward. I read it fast because I want to know what happens next. (And sometimes, as blasphemous as it sounds, I may read the ending of the book before I actually finish the story.) For the most part, I put things like writing style and pacing and all that literary stuff out of my mind. But the second time I read it, I take my time. Now that I know the plot, I enjoy the actual sensation of reading. I enjoy exploring the writer’s style, getting to dig into the character’s minds, seeing little things I missed beforehand and going “so that‘s what this means!” One could argue that I should just read carefully the first time around, but for me, by knowing the ending, I’m not distracted about wondering “what’s going to happen next?” I can focus on the characters, their motivations, their actions, the plot, by knowing the eventual end point. The first time around, I enjoy the story. The second time around, I can enjoy the book as a piece of literature.

Which leads me to the latest book I finished, American Gods by Neil Gaiman. The basic premise is that the gods that people believed in- Norse, Egyptian, Hindu, Native American, etc.- all exist in America. Not just gods, but other fantastical spirits like leprechauns and kitsunes exist as well. They live and breathe as normal-looking humans, albeit with some special talents. In the past, people believed in them and they lived and flourished. But now these old gods are being threatened by the new American gods (Internet, Media, TV, etc.) and an ex-con named Shadow gets caught up in the upcoming war between the two factions.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts on books, you’ll know I’m a big fantasy fan. I’m not exactly equating mythology to fantasy- there were certainly ancient folks who believed in their pantheon gods and for all I know there are still some people today who still do- but religious mythologies do have fantastical elements about them.

Most of my knowledge is on ancient Greek mythology but at one point I knew a fair amount of ancient Egyptian mythology and I’ve dabbled a little bit in Norse mythology. So you can imagine the geekfest I had as I enjoyed puzzling out which characters represented which god. Of course I didn’t know everyone, but I enjoyed doing research on the ones I didn’t know and finding more about their respective worlds and pantheons.

The novel is told mostly form Shadow’s point of view which is interrupted once in a while with small vignettes of a past individual (not related to the main plot) encountering one of their gods in the real world, helping to flesh out a little of the gods’ history in America. Gaiman’s writing is clean and clutter-free, though not as sparse as Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory. The little mini-stories were a nice way to shed light on some the gods that weren’t the main focus of the story and glimpses into American history that has a little more fantasy in it than we usually imagine.

So the underlying question of the story is: Are we too desperate to cling to the past and preserve its traditions, or are we so anxious to barrel towards the future that we ignore those who have come before us? That’s for you to decide. If you’re not into mythology, you might like the novel, but you might not pick up on some of the subtle nods to the pantheons that the characters belong to (though I’m sure you can Google and a kind soul out there will have made a list of which god each character is.) But don’t let that turn you away! There’s plenty of sex/violence/introspective musing that doesn’t require lengthy knowledge of ancient gods to enjoy.