The Graveyard Book

I've come to the conclusion that I will always read Neil Gaiman's things and even if I'm not delighted by a piece, it doesn't seem to decrease my interest in his work. It's just kind of how it is. There's something fascinating about the stories he tells and so even if I'm not immediately taken by the idea, sooner or later, I know that I'll always pick up whatever he happens to publish. In addition, I tend to prefer his novels on audio book (or at least certainly the ones geared towards a younger audience). He reads them himself and there's something about having the writer read his work... it's the closest you can get to understanding his intentions, as he's placing the emphasis on just what he wishes. I also think I just might find Neil Gaiman to be fascinating, too, and I'm always pleased to see his tweets (@neilhimself).

The Graveyard Book opens with a very chilling scene -- a man named Jack enters a home and kills a family... everyone except the baby, who happens to escape death by chance, as he toddles out the open door and into the nearby graveyard. With Jack in pursuit, the ghosts of the graveyard hide the baby after the faint spirit of his newly murdered mother appears to plead for assistance, and the man Jack is diverted and drawn away. After a good amount of discussion between the occupants of the graveyard, the baby is adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Owens, and he is christened "Nobody." Another being, named Silas, also agrees to serve as the child's guardian, as the ghosts cannot leave the graveyard, but Silas can, and therefore is able to procure food and clothing for the boy.

And so Nobody Owens (known as "Bod") grows up in a graveyard, under its protection and thus given certain advantages. For instance, he can see quite clearly in the dark and learns things that ghosts must learn, such as the abilities to fade from view or change the atmosphere to increase the levels of unease and fear. He is tutored by ghosts and only makes one living friend as a child. But always there is the threat that outside the graveyard, there is danger. For the man Jack had been sent to kill Bod and his family, and he has not stopped looking for the boy.

I found the first half of this story to be more interesting than the second, and certain moments stand out as being more memorable than others. I tended to like the idea of things best (the idea of a boy raised by ghosts in a graveyard, the idea of an ancient spirit living deep under the graveyard that is waiting for a master, and so forth), so it's not surprising, I suppose that the beginning would appeal to me more than the end, where things had played out. I certainly do recommend the audiobook, and Neil Gaiman unsurprisingly does a wonderful job. His voice perfectly fits the tone of the story; and it was that tone that I consistently enjoyed, even while certain events didn't delight me. The relationship with Scarlett, his one friend, was cute but predictable, particularly when it came to her introduction of Mr. Frost. The motivation for killing Bod's family and the continued search for Bod was not what I hoped for. It seemed too grandiose for the setting and I would have been more satisfied with something a little more focused. I also thought that while we did have some entertaining vignettes of scenes, they were quite obviously inserted for later use, and I never found myself surprised by the events. But as with all Neil Gaiman stories, there are some delightful details and moments. The focus on and description of the knife in the first scene made it so chilling. Bod's identification of the ghosts both by name and the inscription on their tombstone made me smile. When the Sleer uncertainly asked Bod if he was their master, and then if he would be their master, I almost cried.

If you enjoyed Coraline, I certainly think you'll be entertained by this -- though despite its setting, I didn't find it as unsettling as certain parts of that story. I do always appreciate that Neil Gaiman is not afraid to let children know that bad things happen in the world, often to good people who did nothing to deserve them. Families can be killed and children can lose all they have. He doesn't overly-shield them and I find that somewhat admirable in today's day and age. It's a different tack than, say, Daniel Handler/Lemony Snicket with his Series of Unfortunate Events where bad things happen, but in a more entertaining way. So, thanks again, Neil, for another fascinating tale. My ipod and I eagerly await the next.


Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count

The experience of reading this book in public was not pleasant. I got several poorly-crafted observation jokes of "trying to be more intelligent, eh?" from some co-workers, who met my withering glance and then scurried away. But that was harmless in comparison to the on-edge feeling that I had in the subway, holding my book open as little as possible to minimize the potential for people reading over my shoulder. Was I ashamed of the topic? Not at all, but the language used to discuss a semi-sensitive topic sometimes left me wondering if people might think I was a racist as page after page went on about studies connecting race and IQ. (I realize that this suggests people read more than just a word or two when glancing at the things other people read on the subway, but still, it was enough to unnerve me. All someone needed to do was see "blacks with lower IQs"...)

That said, clearly the point of this book is to say that nature has little to do with IQ and nurture far and away takes the cake. And to make that point, many discussions of race and IQ had to take place (which bring us back to me feeling uncomfortable in the subway). Even in the event of disproving things, we do need to confront some awkward truths, and within Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count, Richard Nisbett does a fair job at assuring us that we're not all doomed from the start to be limited in our abilities, though that doesn't mean we don't need to act fast in order to get our children prepared for their lives.

Nisbett includes a great deal of data to carry his point that environment is the major factor in affecting the intelligence of children (and for that matter, adults), which might seem overwhelming for someone who isn't a statistician, but I think it's all presented in a coherent manner, so I never found myself lost completely. Of course, the complex issue that is raised by Nisbett's work suggests that genes have little to do with predicting your IQ... but your cultural and socioeconomic influences do. The ugly truth of that statement? Your genes won't hold you back, but your ignorant family just might as soon as you're out of the womb, so keep those fingers crossed that you're born into an upper-middle class family that converses with each other.

Of course, that's the negative view that one can take away. The positive approach is that parents and schools (or any kind of programs) can have a big impact on the intelligence of children... provided that they're good ones. Without concerned and caring parents, experienced and committed teachers... well... things don't look good. The current socioeconomic system then becomes a kind of caste system, condemning children to repeat the lives of their parents and be unable to rise above, resulting in children who end up classified as disabled when different circumstances could have certainly avoided such a fate.

As a reasonably intelligent person, I feel that most of the conclusions drawn from this data are, in fact, things that make perfect sense if your mind ever happens to alight upon the topic. If you only surround the average child with influences that aren't encouraging or challenging, then the child's curiosity and intelligence will suffer as a result. Of course, Nisbett has data to back all of this up, resulting in some fascinating (and frightening) statistics. (And, of course, he states from the outset that not all families are alike an it's not great to make generalizations, but then the studies make their generalized statements and I start feeling awkward again.) For instance... a child in a middle class family will hear several million more words than a child in a lower class family, and beyond improved vocabulary isn't the only thing that results from that. Parents of middle class children (and again, the generalizations make me uncomfortable, but this was how it was presented in the book) are more likely to be engaged in conversation with their parents, to be asked questions that both draw out the child's opinions and logical reasoning abilities. When lower class children are spoken to by adults, they're often spoken to in terms of orders, such as to perform tasks, rather than engaged in conversation. It sounds pretty bleak, but thankfully, he did at least report on some programs that are invested in teaching better parenting skills or serving as day care facility with trained staff.

And lest you think he dodged some other issues in terms of race and IQ, Nisbitt did include chapters on "the Asian Advantage" and Jewish intelligence. While speaking of Asians, I feel that he didn't include nearly as much research in his discussion as he had with other chapters... which seemed rather odd, given that he himself does a great deal of research in Asia. He made some interesting (though not new) statements about the cultural differences between Asian and Western societies, given one's focus on the family and society's success and the other's focus on personal and individual success. What seemed a bit out of place, however, were statements like Confucius is responsible for all Asian thought, etc. (I did, however, like one Asian father commenting on the idea that it's not "Asian overachievement" so much as it's "American underachievement" when he witnessed his daugher's class give an award for completing all of the homework assignments.) And as far as Jewish intelligence, this chapter jumped away from his general format and seemed only to bring up the various theories that people have about why Jews are so smart and dismissed them pretty quickly. Perhaps he thought the majority of the book's arguments covered these, but still, it might have been worth repeating a bit.

We read this book for my book club and we actually had some great conversations result, particularly surrounding the idea of affirmative action and school funding. A great deal of Nisbett's points seemed to bring focus to early childhood development (though clearly, many educational researchers do), but almost to the point where it overlooked what can be done for older students. And I couldn't help but feel like I was waiting for Nisbett to make some kind of recommendation... to endorse certain practices or programs... but if you're waiting for that, you might as well skip to his last chapter when he tosses in a few common sense recommendations for parents (which can hardly be seen as serious, given that if someone is reading this book, they're clearly committed to their child's education and must be doing all these things already).

Don't feel intimidated by the size of the book if this isn't your usual kind of reading, for you're only reading about two-thirds of the pages... the rest are taken up by optional appendices, footnotes, and research citations. And yes, you can say that the title is stupid, as the book isn't much concerned with telling you how to acquire intelligence, be it for you or your precious little one. It was an interesting read (the studies were my favorite part, when certain things are isolated and the variables are charted) and you'll feel like it was worthwhile if you can manage to stir up some discussions on the topic. Since I work for an educational publisher, you can bet that it wasn't too hard to collect a group that wanted in on the discussion when I started talking about this book with co-workers, and I think that anyone (particularly parents) will be asking you to borrow your copy once you're finished.

Meatball Sundae

A "meatball sundae" is the idea of mixing two good ideas... and everything going horribly wrong. If the meatballs are the foundations of marketing, the things we need, and the whipped cream and toppings represent the fun stuff of new marketing... well... you can't simply just toss them together and expect the results to be awesome.

Meatball Sundae by Seth Godin was selected as the first book for a marketing book club at my office, where several marketing teams from the different divisions would come together and discuss. The discussion was fine, though I personally think our targeted audiences are a bit too varied for us to come up with any real action items as a group. Within our individual marketing teams, perhaps, but it was useful to hear everyone's thoughts. The book club leader was very organized and had prepared a handout and everything, leading our discussion in the same format as the book. It's broken up by fourteen "trends" that are defining the marketing landscape right now, which make for easy reading in short bites, and clear discussion.

Personally, I imagine if I had read this book in 2007, it might have been helpful. But reading it in 2009, it was only useful insofar as it re-emphasized certain basics. It would, however, be an interesting read for someone new to marketing or just embarking on a project. You could definitely get some pointers on launching a new product with this book, but it's not terribly helpful when it comes to marketers who have a product already. (After all, he notes that the two big take-aways from his book should be that you should "Make something worth talking about and make it easy to talk about.") It's a quick read and it's certainly skim-able, but because of his continued focus on energizing your consumer base (aka find people to spread the word of your product for you by activating the interested and turning them into campaigners), I spent most of the time wishing that we had, instead, selected to read "Tribes." The frequent use of case studies was both helpful (giving clear examples) and annoying (there wasn't a single company that he mentioned that I hadn't already heard of or studied).

So if you're looking for a marketing book, my advice to you is to make sure you're reading something new if you're looking for something to do with new marketing. Otherwise you'll find it's already behind the times.



"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
"She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita."

Oh, Lolita. Is there anyone these days who doesn't know the general story? Middle-aged Humbert Humbert becomes obsessed with twelve-year-old Dolores Haze. Thankfully, few literate people disagree with the statement that Lolita is a brilliant work of twentieth-century fiction. I find myself at a loss for words in reviewing this book, if only because I feel like so much has already been said. The language is beautiful and the story is riveting. The repulsion one feels for Humbert's taste is complicated by his deviously charming writing and Lolita's self-awareness. One might find an untrustworthy narrator to be a chore at times, but here, it is nothing short of fascinating.

Above all, what struck me with this reading of Lolita is just how masterful Nabokov's command of the English language really is... I found myself savoring every sentence and looking up the definitions of words of which I knew the meanings... not because I thought I was wrong or that he would be more precise, but that there were certain nuances to be gained. I spent time reflecting on certain details that would crop up (for instance, Humbert's obsessive cataloguing of Lolita's height and weight) or various academic interpretations (the question of this book representing the corruption of young America by old Europe or old Europe's downfall brought about by young America), but really, it's the language that I kept coming back to again and again. Here is a wordsmith, here is a man who knows how to turn a phrase. Breath-taking at every turn.

If you haven't read it yet, I shall not pressure you. There will come a time in your life when you finally feel compelled to pick this up and you'll understand the awesome power of Nabokov's language in painting such an fascinating story.