Three Books I Read in December 2019

Once again, last month I read a good number of books and decided to split them up between my blog post today and my post next Monday.


Think you can't be fooled by a lair? Think again!
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, by Malcolm Gladwell

Talking to Strangers:  What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, by Malcolm Gladwell

Mr. Gladwell’s book says most of us default to thinking strangers are truthful until they prove us wrong, but we are not good at discerning a lie. This can lead to disaster; however, if the majority of people assumed everyone is dishonest, that will have even worse outcomes. It’s an interesting thing to consider.

After reading a pre-publication excerpt from the book, I got on the waitlist for it at the public library. I was intrigued by the idea.

In the book’s introduction, Mr. Gladwell relates the tragic story of Sandra Bland, a young African American woman pulled over by a police officer in Texas in 2015 for not signaling a lane change. Things rapidly escalated and Ms. Bland committed suicide in her jail cell three days later.

The book includes an interesting example from Russian folklore. It seems there is a yurodivy or “Holy Fool” in Russian folklore who is a misfit, an outcast, sometimes seen as mentally-ill, but this person “has access to the truth.” Because he isn’t part of proper society, he tells the truth. He calls people out for lying. He is the modern-day whistleblower.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the child is the “Holy Fool” who blurts out, “Look at the King! He’s not wearing anything at all!” Everyone else sees that the emperor’s magical costume is nothing at all, but the king has been convinced it is a real outfit and everyone but the child is afraid to call the king out – or perhaps many of them have been hoodwinked just like the king.

We need “Holy Fools,” but we can’t all be “Holy Fools.” They see liars everywhere. If everyone operated that way, commerce and interpersonal relationships would cease.

I can’t succinctly summarize this book. Mr. Gladwell gives numerous examples to illustrate how we are fooled every day by strangers. We think we are too smart to be tricked by a liar, but we are all susceptible to it.

He gives many examples where intelligence agencies, diplomats, and governments have been tricked by strangers to an unbelievable extent. Examples include “The Queen of Cuba,” Bernie Madoff, the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State University, an episode of the TV series “Friends,” the Amanda Knox case in Italy, the case of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain being completely fooled by the personality of Adolph Hitler, and several other such large-scale examples. Mr. Gladwell goes into great detail about each of the cases he cites in his book.

The average person’s response to these examples is, “That would never happen to me!” and “How in the world did they get fooled?” Before we jump to such a conclusion, though, we need to keep in mind that we, too, can be fooled by strangers (and by people we think we know well.)

Talking to Strangers:  What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, by Malcolm Gladwell, is food for thought. It is a very interesting book.


The Guardians, by John Grisham

People convicted of crimes they didn't commit
The Guardians, by John Grisham

This much-anticipated latest legal thriller by John Grisham did not disappoint. The name of the novel comes from a loosely-organized organization that works to get out of prison individuals who were wrongly convicted of a crime. The protagonist is a lawyer who got involved in The Guardians after he became disenchanted with the judicial system.

The overriding theme of innocent people being railroaded by the judicial system and spending decades in prison or given the death penalty should make us all stop and think.

In this book, Mr. Grisham takes us to death row and even to a condemned prisoner’s last meal, when we know the prisoner is not guilty of the crime of which he was convicted. The book follows several such cases.


The Baker’s Secret, by Stephen P. Kiernan

The Baker’s Secret, by Stephen P. Kiernan

This novel had been on my to-be-read list for a long time. I’m glad I finally got around to listening to it. It’s a captivating story of Emma, a young French woman who is ordered to become the German kommandant’s baker during World War II and what she did to fool the kommandant and to help keep her fellow citizens alive during the German occupation of France.

The story of Emma is beautifully told as D-Day approaches. She lives in Normandy and has given up on the Allies ever coming to France’s rescue. I especially enjoyed the way the author describes D-Day and the days that followed through Emma’s eyes.

More so than most any other novel I’ve read, The Baker’s Secret brings to life the everyday lives and struggles faced by the regular people in the countries that were under foreign occupation and attack during World War II. Something this book brings out is the very real hunger experienced by the citizens of France during the war.

Cassandra Campbell does a great job reading the book for the CD edition.


Since my last blog post

The holiday season is nearing an end and it’s time to start a new year. I’m trying to be optimistic about 2020, but the events of the last several days makes that more difficult than it was just a week ago. I am, of course, referring to US-Iranian relations.


Until my next blog post

As I stated in my December 30, 2019 blog post, I will continue to seek a higher level of peace and contentment in 2020. I wish that for you, also.

I hope you have a good book to read. I’ve just started A Minute to Midnight, by David Baldacci.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have productive writing time.

Thank you for reading my blog post. You have many things vying for your attention and your time, so I truly appreciate the fact that you took time to read my blog.


Let’s continue the conversation

What are you reading? Have you read an especially powerful or enjoyable book recently?

I look forward to your feedback.

Janet

I stretched my reading horizons in November

The books I read in November took me to Auschwitz, Barcelona, Boston, Philadelphia, a plantation in Virginia, and a gulag in Siberia. Today I’ll write about three of the seven books I read in November. Four of the seven were written by authors that were new to me.


The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafόn

This author was recommended to me by my cousin, Jerome Williams. Actually, he recommended celebrated Spanish novelist Señor Zafόn’s latest book, The Labyrinth of Spirits. It being the fourth and final book in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, I thought it best that I read the first book in the series first – The Shadow of the Wind.

The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

When I read reviews of The Shadow of the Wind, I discovered people either raved about it or hated it. People who didn’t like it wrote scathing reviews. Author Kristin Hannah gave it five stars on Goodreads.com and author Diana Gabaldon gave it four stars on that same website. I tend to trust Jerome’s judgment and that of Ms. Hannah and Ms. Gabaldon, so I downloaded the MP3 edition of the book onto my tablet.

I was immediately drawn into the book with its beautiful description of books! In fact, it was the author’s wit and descriptive language are what I liked most about the book. The book continued more off-color language than books I usually read, but the language suited the characters. I mention this, in case you are overly-offended by such language. You might not want to read it, if that’s the case.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed listening to the book and laughed out loud on numerous occasions. I wish I had mastered Spanish in high school and college so I could read The Shadow of the Wind in its original language.

What is the book about? It’s a coming of age tale that begins with a ten-year-old boy, Daniel. His father, a bookseller, takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. This secret “library” of endless shelves and twists and turns houses rare books – books that have been forgotten. Daniel is instructed to select a book to save. He chooses The Shadow of the Wind, by Julian Carax.

Daniel is obsessed with finding out everything he can about Julian Carax and, in particular, why his books weren’t well-known. This obsession leads Daniel into a string of dangers and a host of characters. It is believed his copy of The Shadow of the Wind is the last surviving copy of Julian Carax’s book because someone is methodically stealing and burning copies of the book. We eventually find out about the sad life of Julian Carax.


The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett

I started reading The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett and immediately liked it. Not far into it, the CD edition became available at the public library and I switched to listening to the novel. It was read by actor Tom Hanks. I should say, it was read to perfection by Tom Hanks.

The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett

The Dutch House is a novel about a dysfunctional family. The breaking point is when the mother leaves and doesn’t come back. There are two children. Maeve is the older of the two and is very protective of her younger brother, Danny. The story is told from Danny’s viewpoint from his childhood and well into his adulthood.

Things spiral downward when Maeve and Danny’s father remarries and brings his new wife and her two small daughters into The Dutch House. There are many layers to this novel as all the family dynamics are explored, as well as how the individuals who worked at the house played into the scenario.

The house in which Maeve and Danny lived as young children is called The Dutch House because it was built by a couple from the Netherlands. It is a grand house and it is as important in the story as any of the characters. The house is, in a way, the main character.

Although the overall plot is a sad and tragic tale, there are moments of humor which Tom Hanks presents as only he can. Reading the book is enjoyable, but I highly recommend the CD edition. That might be a first for me!


Cilka’s Journey, by Heather Morris

This historical novel left me in awe of the real-life Cilka as well as the author. You may recall that I read The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris, in October of last year. Here’s a link to the blog post in which I wrote about that historical novel:  https://janetswritingblog.com/2018/11/05/many-good-books-read-in-october/. That book really made an impression on me, so I jumped at the chance to read Ms. Morris’ new novel.

Cilka’s Journey, by Heather Morris

In Cilka’s Journey, the author expands on the life of a teenage girl being held at Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp in her earlier novel. Ms. Morris is a master of historical fiction and makes me wonder if I have what it takes to write in that genre.

Cilka spent three years in captivity at Auschwitz-Birkenau. At the end of World War II in Europe, [SPOILER ALERT:  instead of being set free by her Russian liberators she is charged with sleeping with the enemy (which was not by choice!) and is sentenced to 15 years in a gulag in Siberia!]

Cilka is a natural-born caregiver and learns the nursing profession while a prisoner. She lives a life of unbelievable loss, suffering, and abuse before being allowed to return to her native Czechoslovakia in the 1950s. (Czechoslovakia is, of course, now the Czech Republic.)

It is historical novels like this that remind me that I have lived a charmed and sheltered life compared to millions of other people in the world. I highly recommend Cilka’s Journey. I listened to it on CD. It was beautifully-read by Louise Brealey and contains lots of background information and an interview with the author at the end.

Lale Sokolov, the real-life Auschwitz survivor we learned about in The Tattooist of Auschwitz, said of Cilka, “She was the bravest person I ever met.”


Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading Nothing More Dangerous, by Allen Eskens and listening to Talking to Strangers, by Malcolm Gladwell.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have productive writing time.

Thank you for reading my blog. You could have spent the last few minutes doing something else, but you chose to read my blog.

If you enjoy my blog posts, please share that on social media and with your real life friends. Don’t be shy about telling others about my blog!


Let’s continue the conversation

I’m always interested to know what you’re reading. Please tell me in a comment.

Janet