Notes on Books I’ve Recently Read

Flowers for Algernon

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Actually Keyes wrote a short story and a novel titled Flowers for Algernon.  The short story was published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1959, and the novel was published in 1966.  Both won numerous awards.  The short story was so successful that Keyes decided to expand it into a novel.  Great idea.

Both are about a man named Charlie Gordon who has an IQ of 68.  He undergoes an experimental brain operation in which the doctors somehow perform a procedure which causes his IQ to increase to 185 over a short period of time.  Before and after the procedure Charlie writes down his thoughts, and they plainly show that his ability to think deeply is developing.  He also realizes for the first time what he was like before the operation, and he has to cope with the people who teased him unmercifully then and who later can’t accept the genius he has become.

Algernon is a lab mouse that went through the same operation before Charlie had his IQ boosted.  Charlie marvels at the super intelligent mouse and then watches with horror as Algernon’s abilities regress.  Will the same thing happen to Charlie?  By then Charlie is extremely intelligent and, for the first time in his life, has the ability to understand what might happen to him.  I won’t tell you what happens, but I assure you that Keyes wrote a fascinating story from beginning to end.

The short story and the novel are similar in many ways, but the novel goes into greater detail than the short story about Charlie’s relationships with his coworkers, his family, and the researchers who have performed the life-altering procedure on him.  It also adds a sexual relationship between Charlie and his teacher, Alice Kinnian, which, I suspect, has lead to the censorship of the novel in some school systems.  I personally feel that teenagers can handle the contents of the novel, but I certainly think that they should at least read the short story.  Both the short story and the novel teach us a great deal about how we should treat people who are not like us, and it causes us to empathize with Charlie Gordon who has no control over what is happening to him.

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The Wrecking Crew

The Wrecking Crew (2012) by Kent Hartman

I knew a little bit about “studio musicians” before I read The Wrecking Crew, but not much.  Having read it, I have a much deeper appreciation for their contributions to the music we enjoy.  Let me give you a few examples of what I’ve learned.

First, many of the recordings we enjoy by groups like The Beach Boys sound better than the groups in person because the abilities of the musicians in the recording sessions are far superior to that of the group members.  Record producers want to make money, therefore, they have to produce recordings of the highest quality so the public will buy the records – or actually CDs and downloads these days.  I also learned that some groups believe that they are as talented as the studio musicians and highly resent being forced to let others take their instrumental parts in recording sessions.

Studio musicians are normally told exactly how to play a song, but they have often come up with innovative ideas that have turned an ordinary song into something special and memorable.  And their genius for doing this is, in most cases, only known to the members of that particular recording session.  Yet they continue to do it because they are talented people who truly care about the music they are playing.  Some notable studio musicians discussed are guitarist Glen Campbell, bassist Carol  Kaye and drummer Hal Blaine.  The Wrecking Crew is also about the private lives and the ups and downs of their own careers.  You get to know them as people as well as musicians.

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House of Cards 2

House of Cards (1989) by Michael Dobbs

This is the first of three books featuring Francis Urquhart that was written by former British politician Michael Dobbs.  The other two are To Play the King (1992) and The Final Cut (1994).  I hungrily watched all three on Public Television when they first aired.  You’ve probably watched the Netflix series of the same name that featured the villainous Frank Underwood.  The Netflix series is based in part on Dobbs’ books.

Francis Urquhart and his wife, Elizabeth, remind me of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.  They are ruthless.  Francis does most of the dirty work, but he is encouraged by his wife.  The action takes place at the end of Margaret Thatcher’s term as Prime Minister.  Urquhart maneuvers to have the new Prime Minister disgraced so that he (Urquhart) can become the PM.  Blackmail, murder, seductions, and threats are the means by which Urquhart gets what he wants.  One of the things I liked about the TV series is that Urquhart would periodically look at us and blandly explain why he had just done something horrible.  He had no conscience.

I encourage you to read House of Cards – especially if you have only seen the Netflix series.  And if you ever visit Loch Ness in Scotland, be sure to visit the ruins of Urquhart castle on its banks.  It was owned by Francis’ ancestors according to the novel.

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Call the Midwife

Call the Midwife (2002) by Jennifer Lee Worth

I didn’t see the Call the Midwife series on Public Television, but I wish I had.  This book is about a group of women in Great Britain who delivered babies for poor women who couldn’t afford to give birth in hospitals.   I’ve learned more about the birth process than I thought I would learn – or ever wanted to learn.  After a while I was able to actually anticipate some of the problems that I knew the midwifes would face as they went about their work.  That’s scary.

Even more scary was the living conditions and the family situations of the women who were about to give birth.  The filth, the derelict fathers, and the despair was almost overwhelming.  In addition, most of the women had little or no prenatal care other than that offered by the midwives.  Yet these brave midwives rode bicycles into dangerous neighborhoods each day to make sure that every woman had someone to help her through the dangerous process of giving birth at home.

Jennifer Lee Worth made a number of profound observations along the way.  For instance she tells about women who went through long hours of horrible pain before giving birth.  Then she tells us how she handed these women their babies, and about how they immediately began to smile and talk lovingly to their newborns.  She said that the women seemed to instantly forget about the pain and suffering they had endured during childbirth, and she suggested that forgetting was part of the process that allowed women to look forward to additional children in the future.  In fact, she intimated that no woman would want to have a second child if she vividly remembered the pain she had gone through with the birth of the first.

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The Everything Store

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (2013) by Brad Stone

Jeff Bezos is a fascinating person.  He obtained degrees in electrical engineering and computer science before, of all things, going to work on Wall Street.  Then he decided to open a book store on the internet in part because books are easy to store and ship.  Because he is brilliant, he turned a book store into what authors Stone and Larkin call “the everything store,” and that “store” has made him the wealthiest person in the world.  The range of products you can buy from Amazon is phenomenal.  But you know that, don’t you?

Bezos is not only brilliant, he is very practical, he thinks through things thoroughly, and he is not easily discouraged.  In some ways he’s a lot like Steve Jobs, except that he’s not nearly as eccentric as Jobs was.  He realized that he had to get us hooked on Amazon before he worried about making a profit, and he knew it would take time to get everything to work the way it should.  Now that he has accomplished those goals, Amazon is making quarterly profits through company efficiency and slowly rising prices.  Bezos has always had one core belief that has had a lot to do with Amazon’s growth: the customer is always right.  Always!  If what you receive isn’t what you expected it to be, send it back.  No questions will be asked.  Some people have abused this policy, but Bezos stubbornly adheres to it nevertheless.

Bezos has not always been right.  Some of his ideas have not worked out, and others have not attained the prominence he expected they would.  However, he’s been right more times than he’s been wrong.

The Amazon Echo (also called Alexa) is a good example of how Bezos thinks.  When it first came out, it was the only device of its kind, and it sold for about $180.  The sound, though not stereo, was excellent.  He also developed some auxiliary products that work with the Echo.  Echo Dots are much smaller (and cheaper) than the Echo and don’t give nearly the quality of sound that the Echo provides, but they have the same features as the Echo and can be attached to quality speakers if you desire. If you have a Fire tablet, you know that it also has the Echo features.  And you can play music through all of those devices at one time.  I have an Amazon app on my iPhone and by pressing an icon on it I can access most of the features of my Echo.  For a while I have been able to place calls through my Echo and now Amazon offers a device (the Echo Connect) that announces when I get calls on my home phone and allows me to tell Alexa to answer those incoming calls.  At that point I have two-way communication with the caller through my Echo devices

Think about the thought processes that occurred for Amazon to get to where they are with the Echo and its auxiliary products.  Bezos gave us quality products that work seamlessly together at a reasonable price.  Now that other companies are producing Echo-like devices, Amazon has introduced the second generation Echo which features Dolby sound, and it sells for approximately $80 less than the original Echo.

I have all of the products described above, so do you think I would be tempted to buy a competitor’s product only to find that it doesn’t work with what I already have?  No, and that’s the way Bezos planned it.

The Everything Store is a wonderful book that describes what a genius who is grounded in the real world can accomplish.  We need more entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos.

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The Mammoth Book

The Mammoth Book of the Adventures of Professor Moriarty: 37 Short Stories about the Secret Life of Sherlock Holmes’s Nemesis (2016) – Edited by Maxim Jakubowski

Like many people, I am a sucker for anything that is even remotely related to the master detective, Sherlock Holmes, who was created by Sir Arthur Conan  Doyle back in 1887.  That’s when the novel A Study in Scarlet was published.

Naturally I was intrigued by the very idea of a book of short stories by 37 different authors in which each one presenting its author’s ideas about Holmes’ archenemy, Professor James Moriarty.  Think about it, we know very little about Moriarty’s background or about what he did while Holmes’ was not attempting to outwit him and end his devilish career.  The authors of these well-thought-out tales, therefore, have an endless number of directions in which their stories might proceed – and they do.  Each tale is strikingly different from the others.  We see Moriarty as a child, as an unforgiving gang leader, and as a man who can be very kind and sympathetic at times.  One thing that most of the stories have in common is Moriarty’s ability to plan and carry out his schemes with the deep thinking and precision of an exacting mathematician – which he was.  I always looked forward to the next story because I knew it would be both interesting and very different from the ones that preceded it.

I wish a bunch of authors would create another volume of stories about the evil but fascinating Professor James Moriarty.  Better still, how about a similar book about Sherlock’s smarter brother, Mycroft.  Surely someone as smart as Mycroft had many adventures as an energetic young man who was connected to the British government in some mysterious way.  We have some tantalizing hints in the Holmes stories that Mycroft played an important part in saving the British government some embarrassment.  I’ll bet he has even solved some sticky mysteries while pretending to be only a sedate, disinterested member of the Diogenes Club (which he co-founded, by the way).  Where is his chronicler?

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