Bob and Weave

Musings of an impostor. Welcome to the masquerade.

Archive for January, 2014

Book Review: David and Goliath

Posted by flyingbk on 01/09/2014

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

First things first: Gladwell remains a terrific writer. He is a master at interposing multiple stories with the points he’s seeking to make. He’d probably make a fantastic preacher since he would always nail the right moment to bring back the slice of his illustration that reverberates with said point. Each time I finish one of his books, I feel like I’ve learned a few things new about how we humans truly live, and found some good sermon illustrations to boot (including one I used in this past Sunday’s message, in the final excerpt below).

The book, of course, is based off the famous battle in the Bible. Gladwell’s main point is that the underdog (a la David) possesses several advantages while the one with power (Goliath) is more limited than we think. For those who face challenges, it’s the old cliche of it not being an obstacle, but an opportunity. He utilizes examples such as a coach who employs full-court pressure when his team is much smaller; a dyslexic man who is inured to failure and therefore finagles his way to a high-paying Wall Street job; and a doctor who suffered at an early age from the death of his father, but overcame and thus succeeded in finding a cure for childhood leukemia with his dogged experimenting.

Gladwell focuses on the idea of “desirable difficulty,” which at first glance is an obvious idea. But he presents it in a balmy and cogent fashion that makes you appreciate what people go through and how they are able to overcome. It also provided me with a fresh lens to view and understand people and how we truly are shaped by the hardships of our lives.

The most powerful part of the book is in the penultimate chapter, where Gladwell juxtaposes an unforgiving father that helps bring about The Three Strikes Law with a Mennonite couple that  is able to forgive the man who killed their daughter. Here’s Gladwell’s conclusion: “A man employs the full power of the state in his grief and ends up plunging his government into a fruitless and costly experiment. A woman who walks away from the promise of power finds the strength to forgive— and saves her friendship, her marriage, and her sanity. The world is turned upside down.” (p. 262)

A bit tidy? Sure. But it does show how we can win when yielding power rather than seizing it. Weakness often does become strength. Hmm, I think I’ve read that somewhere elseThere are some stories and points that aren’t as applicable, and in totality, there is less to glean here than Gladwell’s previous books (all of which I would highly recommend). But that’s a minor quibble. This book is worth your time.

Notable excerpts:
“Most of the learning that we do is capitalization learning . It is easy and obvious. If you have a beautiful voice and perfect pitch, it doesn’t take much to get you to join a choir. “Compensation learning,” on the other hand, is really hard. Memorizing what your mother says while she reads to you and then reproducing the words later in such a way that it sounds convincing to all those around you requires that you confront your limitations. It requires that you overcome your insecurity and humiliation. It requires that you focus hard enough to memorize the words, and then have the panache to put on a successful performance. Most people with a serious disability cannot master all those steps. But those who can are better off than they would have been otherwise, because what is learned out of necessity is inevitably more powerful than the learning that comes easily.” (p. 113)

“In the book Amish Grace, there is a story of a young Amish mother whose five-year-old son was struck and critically injured by a speeding car. The Amish, like the Mennonites, are heirs to the tradition of Dirk Willems. They suffered alongside the Mennonites in the early years of their faith. In the Mennonite and Amish tradition, there are countless stories like this one:
“As the investigating officer placed the driver of the car in the police cruiser to take him for an alcohol test, the mother of the injured child approached the squad car to speak with the officer. With her young daughter tugging at her dress, the mother said, “Please take care of the boy.” Assuming she meant her critically ill son, the officer replied, “The ambulance people and doctor will do the best they can. The rest is up to God.” The mother pointed to the suspect in the back of the police car. “I mean the driver. We forgive him.” (p. 262)

The verdict: 4 out of 5 stars.

Next up: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.


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Book Review: The Second World War

Posted by flyingbk on 01/07/2014

It must be a new year since I am trying once again to blog regularly. My goal for now is to simply write reviews of each book I finish. I haven’t finished anything yet in 2014, so I’ll start with the last two I finished in 2013. Just one for now:

The Second World War by Antony Beevor

This is quite the hefty tome: It clocks in at 843 pages. But as one of my friends said to me: “How can you possibly fit the whole story of the World War II in such a small number?” True. But Beevor is able to give the reader a wonderful and comprehensive overview of the war from start to finish and in all its respective theaters.

A few notable revelations for me: 1) Just how much initial success Germany banked in its foray into Soviet Russia; of course, it was all for naught and it truly is remarkable how Stalin’s men are able to eventually turn the tables and wreak ruinous havoc on Hitler and Company. 2) The fatalistic and maniacally determined ways of the Japanese, and why the atomic bomb was most likely the correct course of action. Beevor does not argue explicitly in favor of the bombings, but does hint often at its pragmatism. 3) The final 100 pages or so of the book very strong in its examination of the talks between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin. The former two obviously underestimated just how devious and determined Stalin was- and although I’m not sure what more could have done to prevent the construction of the Iron Curtain, there are lessons for us today regarding the irrepressible nature of evil and how an equally resolute counter is necessary.

But by far the most lasting and disturbing epiphany found in these pages is the monstrous level of cruelty that transpired from all parties in battle. Many of us know about the horrors of the Holocaust and the moral questions of civilian bombing (not just of Japan, but also Germany). But how much do we know about the mass rapings (brothels in Japan were even set up in advance to provide comfort women  for the Americans and Australians and thus “reduce the incidence of rape”) and bayoneting of women, the cannibalism of the Japanese (which included American POWs) and starving Russian citizens, and simply the loss of military and civilian lives, which to this day continue to boggle the mind?

I read this book as part of my 2013 mission to read longer books. Yeah, that goal was a mistake, and I don’t see myself doing that again. I had to will myself to finish it- not because it was boring, but because I just don’t have the patience to keep my interest glued for that long. But kudos to Beevor for compiling a semi-accessible history of the war. I would heartily recommend it to anyone who’s willing to take the time and energy to grasp the full scope of the deadliest conflict in human history.

Memorable excerpts (WARNING: graphic descriptions):

“The Nazis’ final attempt to manufacture a casus belli was truly representative of their methods. This act of black propaganda had been planned and organized by Reinhard Heydrich, deputy to Reichsführer -SS Heinrich Himmler. Heydrich had carefully selected a group of his most trusted SS men. They would fake an attack both on a German customs post and on the radio station near the border town of Gleiwitz , then put out a message in Polish. The SS would shoot some drugged prisoners from Sachsenhausen concentration camp dressed in Polish uniforms, and leave their bodies as evidence. On the afternoon of 31 August , Heydrich telephoned the officer he had put in charge of the project to give the coded phrase to launch the operation : ‘ Grandmother dead! ’ It was chillingly symbolic that the first victims of the Second World War in Europe should have been concentration camp prisoners murdered for a lie.” (Kindle Locations 530-536)

“‘People turn into animals before our eyes,’ wrote a diarist. Some were driven insane by starvation. Soviet history has tried to pretend that there was no cannibalism , but both anecdotal and archive sources indicate otherwise. Some 2,000 people were arrested for ‘the use of human meat as food’ during the siege , 886 of them during the first winter of 1941– 2. ‘Corpse-eating’ was the consumption of meat from somebody already dead. Some people even snatched bodies from the morgue or mass graves. Outside Leningrad, a number of soldiers and officers resorted to eating corpses and even the amputated limbs of field hospitals.
“‘Person-eating’, which was rarer, came from the deliberate murder of an individual for the purpose of cannibalism . Parents , not surprisingly , kept their children in their apartments for fear of what might befall them. It was said that the flesh of children, followed by that of young women, was the tenderest. Although stories abounded of gangs selling human meat ground into kotleta, or rissoles , almost all cannibalism took place within the apartment block, with crazed parents eating their own children, or neighbours preying on those of neighbours. Some starving soldiers in the 56th Rifle Division of the 55th Army ambushed ration carriers, killed them, took their supply of food, buried the body in the snow and returned later to eat it bit by bit.” (Kindle Locations 5763-5773).

“The practice of treating prisoners as ‘human cattle ’ had not come about from a collapse of discipline. It was usually directed by officers. Apart from local people , victims of cannibalism included Papuan soldiers , Australians, Americans and Indian prisoners of war who had refused to join the Indian National Army. At the end of the war, their Japanese captors had kept the Indians alive so that they could butcher them to eat one at a time. Even the inhumanity of the Nazis’ Hunger Plan in the east never descended to such levels. Because the subject was so upsetting to families of soldiers who had died in the Pacific War, the Allies suppressed all information on the subject, and cannibalism never featured as a crime at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal in 1946.” (Kindle Locations 15454-15459)

The verdict: 4 out of 5 stars.

Next up: Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath.

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