Actually managed to finish a couple of books recently, which is remarkable.
I really enjoyed Escape from Amsterdam by Barrie Sherwood. The publisher says:
Aozora---idle university student, future crooked bureaucrat, fresh broken heart---has been playing too much mah-jongg and now finds himself deep in debt. When Auntie Okane dies and leaves him and his sister Mai a priceless inheritance, he thinks his problems are solved. But they’re only just beginning.
Mai’s disappeared, taken hostage by a notorious yakuza gang. Aozora can’t collect the cash without her and his loan sharks are becoming impatient. So begins a fast-paced adventure that takes him to the deep south of Japan and the surreal environs of a Dutch theme park called Amsterdam. It sounds like a holiday, but Aozora is about to enter the real world. . . .
Featuring the Japanese mob, motorcycle gangs, a phony princess, topiary dinosaurs, high-tech love dolls, and a selection of Japanese manga, Escape from Amsterdam is playful, offbeat, and thrilling. It paints a surprising portrait of contemporary Japan that few Westerners have seen and introduces a strikingly original and inventive writer.
Yup, interestingly enough, there's a real amusement park in Japan with a Dutch theme and it describes Aozora's attempt to get his sister free from the clutches of the yakuza and back to his home town so she can sign a will and he can get money to pay off loan sharks. Told in the first person, the book adds an interesting multimedia touch by including scattered pictures and a few drawings. Aozora is a bit of a loser and Gen X whiner, but you can sense a solid core behind his wandering. Add in a few funny scenes and you have a pretty good, easy read.
Second up was A Few Seconds Of Panic by Stefan Fatsis, which tells the George Plimpton like story of a sportswriter trying out for an NFL team as a place kicker. Here's the synopsis:
Drawing on rare access to an NFL team's players, coaches and facilities, the author of The New York Times bestseller Word Freak trains to become a professional-caliber placekicker. As he sharpens his skills, he gains surprising insight into the daunting challenges - physical, psychological, and intellectual - that pro athletes must master. ... he infiltrates a strikingly different subculture - pro football. After more than a year spent working out with a strength coach and polishing his craft with a gurulike kicking coach, Fatsis molded his fortyish body into one that could stand up - barely - to the rigors of NFL training. And over three months in 2006, he became a Denver Bronco. He trained with the team and lived with the players. Not since George Plimpton's stint as a Detroit Lion more than forty years ago has a writer tunneled so deeply into the NFL. While Fatsis honed his mind and drove his body past exhaustion, he communed with every classic athletic type - the affable alpha male, the overpaid brat, the youthful phenom, the savvy veteran - and a welter of bracingly atypical players as well: a fullback who invokes Aristotle, a quarterback who embraces yoga, a tight end who takes creative writing classes in the off-season. Fatsis also witnessed the hidden machinery of a top-flight football franchise, from the God-is-in-the-details strategizing of legendary coach Mike Shanahan to the icy calculation with which the front office makes or breaks careers.
A solid book with good insights into the NFL mind, it did drag on a bit. There were technical discussions of the art of kicking that just weren't that interesting. It also got a little tiring hearing the players complain about how tough the life of an athlete is and how demeaning it can be. But given that even the training camp salaries are pretty good and a spot on the roster earns, at a minimum, what would take many of us years to earn, it seems like they can be a little divorced from reality. Especially the players who come at it with a serious attitude and just don't seem to understand just how lucky they are. But if you are at all interested in football, this is as close as most of us will every come to playing in an NFL game, even if the NFL stuffed shirts wouldn't even let Fatsis kick in an exhibition game. They didn't want to make a "mockery" of the exhibition season - HA! says a season ticket holder forced to pay list price for 2 warmup games!
Thanks to the kindness of @GrandCentralPub, I got a review copy of Malcolm Gladwell's upcoming book, Outliers. So far, a typical Gladwell winner, telling the hidden story behind successful people, whereby your culture, family and timing have as much or more to do with being "successful" than even your innate abilities. To warm you up, here's a review I wrote of his previous book, Blink, which was just amazing, scary and eye opening:
Blink : this book made for some truly fascinating reading. It dragged in a few spots, where Gladwell went on too long with some particular example, but perceptive insights into how we "thin slice", or make snap judgments, abounded. Here's just a few examples:
- Vic Braden, the famous tennis pro, could tell with astounding accuracy when a player was about to double fault. During one match, he was correct 16 out of 17 times, as he was able to pick up tiny clues he couldn't later even articulate.
- A pretty scary section on how the brain can be "primed". In one study, researchers would give users lists of words and ask them to make sentence fragments. By using particular kinds of words, people would act accordingly. For instance:
After being asked to make 4 word sentences out of a long list of similarly scrambled words, you would actually walk back down a hallway slower than you walked in, because these words all bring out "old" feelings! A similar study was done using "polite" and "rude" words, and the subjects were asked to walked down a hallway and talk to another person. This second person was involved in a discussion with someone who wouldn't stop talking. The "rude" primed people would interrupt after less than 5 minutes, but the "polite" primed people never interrupted!
- In another study, one group was asked to take 5 minuets beforehand and think about what it would be like to be a professor and to jot down their thoughts, while another was to think about soccer hooligans. The "professor" group answered 55.6% of Trivial Pursuit questions correctly, while the "soccer hooligan" group only got 42.6%.
- In a truly scary study, using black college students and questions from the GRE, one group was asked to identify their race on a pretest question, while another was not. Test scores for the ones asked about their race were cut in half, due to being primed with the negative stereotypes associated with African Americans! Yowza.
- The book opened with an interesting study involving two decks of cards, a blue and a red one. Each card turned over either wins you alot of money or loses money; only the decks are rigged and the red one is a losing deck while the blue one is a winning one. Most people would begin to notice the difference after about 50 cards and be certain by about 80 cards. But most amazingly, if the body's response was measured (like sweat glands), the unconscious mind begins worrying after only ten cards.
- Researchers hung two ropes down from the ceiling and asked groups of people to figure out how to grab onto both of them, as they weren't long enough to reach easily. Most figured out three ways (move one rope closer and tie it to something, use another rope or cord tied to one to pull it closer, and to stretch as far as possible holding onto one rope and use a pole or something to grab the other). But a fourth method, to start swinging one until it swings out far enough to grab when holding the other, occurred to very few until the researcher would casually brush a rope, causing it to begin a slight swing. Suddenly, most people would come up with the fourth solution. Most surprisingly though, none of them would later say that seeing it swing caused them to think of the answer, preferring instead to say that it just popped into their heads. Funny how we can deceive ourselves!
- In another racially charged study, selecting words for two competing lists tells us alot about how our minds are subtly conditioned by society. You can even take this test yourself here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/. It is called an Implicit Association Test.
- I was amazed to find out that only 14.5% of American males are my height (an even six feet) or taller. I was even more amazed that nearly 60% of the Fortune 500 CEOs are 6' or taller. And while less than 4% of the population is 6'2" or taller, nearly 1/3 of the CEOs were! One study came to the conclusion that each 1" in height was worth $789 in extra annual salary.
So yeah, this was a pretty interesting book. There were a couple of long passages about military exercises and facial muscles that I found a bit tedious, but definitely an eye-opener. So next time before you take a test, think smart thoughts!