Book Review, Text Post

Review: Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell (2008)

Non-fiction isn’t really my thing, if that makes sense. It’s not that the non-fiction works that I have read weren’t enjoyable. Simply that my first instinct is to pick up a novel.

So when a friend bought ‘Outliers’ for me, I was initially unsure. The subtitle, ‘The Story of Success’, initially brought to mind those ‘How to be successful’, confidence booster style books. However, my friend had clearly enjoyed it and I trust her recommendations completely so it went to the top of my ‘to be read list’.

Gosh, were my first impressions (based on the title and subtitle) wrong. 

As the introduction, The Roseto Mystery, both explains and demonstrates, Gladwell aims to explore why ‘outliers’ – individuals or communities who stand out from the crowd in a certain time or place (anomalies, if you will) – occur. He takes examples from a variety of times and locations to understand what circumstances enabled remarkable achievements of individuals, companies, or communities. 

The concept really is fascinating. Be it elite hockey players, software pioneers, educational systems, sought-after lawyers, Gladwell shows that alongside the intelligence and dedicated hard work of individuals, outliers often come to exist as a result of some exceptionally random circumstances. Opportunities arise that, once noted and taken, give those people the chance to develop their skills and motivations, and so achieve these extraordinary things. 

Birthdates; cultural histories and legacies of geographical locations; racial and ethnic relations at given moments in time and place; personal, national or global economic events; so many seemingly trivial (and often unknown) things can build up to produce momentous results.

Gladwell’s style of writing I found to be really comprehensible and effective. It’s like he’s sitting next to you, explaining these things in person. He’s a magnificent story-teller. That’s essentially what ‘Outliers’ is: a collection of stories, though these are real events that are being analysed and understood anew. Gladwell details the context and the minutiae of each example so well that it was as though (as happens when I read fiction), I was being pulled into that world. It reminded me how much skill is involved in finding the right tone and approach in writing so tjat the reader remains engaged.

“He is the best kind of writer – the kind who makes you feel like you’re a genius, rather than he’s a genius.” – The Times

This quote used on the blurb is so true. I learned so much from reading this book. Each case study either referred back to previous examples or was supported by others in briefer detail (don’t worry, Gladwell’s writing style ensures that this never feels like an overload of information). ‘Outliers’ has opened my eyes to how society constructs narratives of success. There’s such a tendency to create almost sickeningly sweet rags-to-riches stories that suggest that extraordinary people ‘appear’ out of nowhere. Gladwell doesn’t take anything away from the remarkable achievements, talents or hard work of the people he discusses. What he does is try to give a broader picture, showing how certain circumstances aligned so that those individuals harnessed their talents at the correct historical moment and had the vision to use them in ways that achieved extraordinary things. 

Gladwell encourages us to imagine how different it might be if those opportunities had been given to someone else or had not happened at all. Some case studies show the importance of changing attitudes and making moves away from aspects of cultural legacies. In showing how much can be understood from ‘outlier’ cases, Gladwell argues for broadening those opportunities for as many people as possible. He shows how much greater our world and our achievements might be if more people had the same opportunities as these ‘outlier’ cases to use their personal abilities.

I’m definitely going to add Gladwell’s other works to my ‘to be read’ list now and I’m going to try to read more non-fiction too. 

This book is definitely worth a read. It’s interesting, it’s well structured and written, and there are great ‘personal’ touches too that really enhance the work. Enjoy!

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Currently reading

I’m currently reading ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell and it’s so good.

It was recommended by a friend and I was unsure at first (I don’t venture into non-fiction often) but Gladwell is such a great writer and the concept is fascinating. It’s essentially exploring the different circumstances that might benefit (or hinder) an individual’s success, circumstances beyond their innate capabilities.

The way Gladwell frames each ‘case study’ is great, and he shows links between them so clearly. For some reason, I always associate non-fiction with ultra-complex, dense terminology and composition, but I’m flying through this.

There’s a quote from The Times on the blurb that says:
“He is the best kind of writer – the kind who makes you feel like you’re a genius, rather than he’s a genius.” That’s pretty spot on!

 *I love my new bookmark. I went to see The Cursed Child on Sunday and it is marvellous! 

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Books for Change: Days 6-8

​Day 6: Favourite First Line 

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” – Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

This is my favourite book of all time* and du Maurier created a fantastic opening for it. It has everything: the intrigue, the suspense, an almost mystical atmosphere.
Who’s the speaker? Where/what is Manderley? Why is the speaker dreaming of going back? Where are they now? 
The entire first chapter is just so beautifully Gothic, with the description of the house and grounds, thebreader moving through the landscape through the narrator’s eyes.

Simply spectacular. *special thanks to @novelobservations who first introduced me to this book, and to du Maurier’s writing. She bought me one of these awesome mugs!

Day 7: Favourite Short Story

The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter

I was torn between The Bloody Chamber story from this collection and Monte Verità by Daphne du Maurier.

I went with Carter in the end, because I think her use of underlying themes in traditional fairytales to create new stories is nothing short of spectacular. This collection, and much of Carter’s writing, is divisive to say the least, but personally, I love the imaginative extremes she experiments with. 

I love the tense, Gothic atmosphere and pacing of The Bloody Chamber story (perhaps that’s why I was torn between this and du Maurier). There’s so much skill used in drawing these vivid characters and experiences, and creating that sense of unpredictability. Like the narrator, we are drawn almost compulsively forward, despite the uncertainty and foreboding.
In short, it’s a wonderfully complex and tense story. And that’s without the weaving in of complex ideas Carter manages here.
Day 8: (International Women’s Day) The book that changed my life.

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara.

This was incredibly difficult because there are so many that have changed the way I see the world, approach life, or simply the books I want to read more of.
However, when I read A Little Life last year, it really moved me emotionally in a way I hadn’t expected. 

Some of the experiences detailed in this novel are dark to say the least, but they’re so ‘human’, so real, and the darker aspects of the characters’ experiences are counterbalanced by uplifting, hopeful moments. It’s a novel about friendship, love, acceptance; about dreams and ambitions, success and failure; about negotiating the transition from youth to adulthood. New York is there in all its complex vibrancy, the opportunities and realities of life in the city explored throughout. The four central characters are wonderfully, vividly drawn: we are frustrated by some of their actions as much as we are in support of them. 

This novel changed my life because it made me consider afresh the world around me, and how small actions can make big differences to another person’s life. It showed once again the importance of compassion, empathy and understanding. The novel celebrates difference and diversity AND the basic essences, like love and friendship and happiness, that connect everyone too. I got so enmeshed in the stories being told that some parts actually made me cry (and that never happens). It was harrowing because it really felt like I knew these people, and I desperately wanted things to change for them. 

I also appreciated how brilliantly constructed it is: moving between the characters and the different ‘moments’ in their lives seamlessly. Even though it’s a long novel, I never felt like it was dragging. It’s truly a work of art, a masterpiece of literary genius.
If I ever doubted that novels written in the twenty first century would be considered ‘classic’ in the way that, as an example, the Brontës are, Yanagihara’s novel put paid to that.

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Books for Change: Days 1-5

I’ve decided to take part in the social media campaign #booksforchange run by @viragopress because I think it’s a great way to celebrate the creativity of outstanding women. I’ve been updating my Instagram account and thought I’d catch up on here too (not sure why I didn’t think of this before). This is going to be a long post.
Day 1: The book that made me feminist.

Definitely Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Woolf is a fantastic writer (perhaps an unpopular opinion, but I do prefer her non-fiction/essays to her fiction) and the skill with which she engages with the concepts of female creativity and social constructions of gender roles here is wonderful.
I read this at university and it showed me for the first time how skewed reading canons often are. 
It’s striking that in the edition I have, published as part of Penguin’s ‘Great Ideas’ series, the only other female writer included is Mary Woolstonecraft. Not only does this point to the lasting impact and importance of Woolf’s ideas, it also kind of proves her argument in A Room of One’s Own. That writing by women, and the great, radical, pioneering, creative ideas potentially contained within them, was stifled, restricted. Who knows how our reading, political and cultural landscapes, including series like ‘Great Ideas’, may have been enriched had generations of women been allowed the same freedoms as their male counterparts.

Day 2: Hidden from History

Gertrude Stein.

I recently discovered Stein after a seminar focussing on experimental women’s writers. By and large, her work is often overlooked in reading lists and teachings of early twentieth century writing (more so in the UK). Other than Woolf, experimentalism in the early twentieth century is associated more with male writers. It’s a great shame, because her writing should be considered among those pioneering experimental writers. She cleverly adapts painting techniques regarding composition for her stories, particularly those in Three Lives – the stories link and overlap in subtle ways even though they focus on unrelated characters. There’s a lot of dark humour worked in too, often in relation to ideas surrounding a woman’s place in society/marriage and the like.
I’d definitely recommend reading these, and Stein’s other works.
Day 3: Stories of Girlhood

Swing Time, by Zadie Smith

I recently listened to this via Audible and I loved it. The dynamic between the narrator and her parents, and the narrator and her friend Tracy, throughout her childhood is pivotal in understanding her entire character, her motivations and actions. 

Smith also manages to convey how unique growing up in London is. All her novels work with the idea that there is no other city like London. She manages to grasp so many of the unique voices that, while they may not sound harmoniously, all make London what it is. They all belong to the city, and the city belongs to them. 

Seeing the narrator and her friend, Tracy, grow up in adjacent tower blocks, both similar in many ways but also vastly different, really portrays how London offers so many varying options and opportunities for people living side by side. While Tracy initially seems to achieve the childhood dream she and the narrator share, the narrator is the one who gets the jet-setting, exciting lifestyle.

And by the conclusion, they have both made choices that prove that however different their lives may have become, neither have changed much from their childhood.
It’s a great book (although it was rather strange listening instead of reading). Thoroughly recommend!
Day 4: Read in one sitting

The Return of the Soldier, Rebecca West

I read this for a university module and was so taken by the story that I just could not put it down. It’s such an incredibly affecting exploration of the effects of war (in this case, World War One) on individuals, marriages, communities. There’s a dilemma at the core of the book about the best course of action regarding the returning soldier, and that gives this novella it’s tension (right word?). Everybody is trying to do the right thing and is acting from a place of love and care but the reader is asked to consider if there is a ‘right’ solution to the problem.
I really loved it, hence reading it in one sitting.

Day 5: #shepersisted 

Americanah, by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie

This book is something else. It is truly remarkable and Ifemelu, I think, is one of the most strong, intelligent and relatable protagonists of all the novels I’ve read. Many of the challenges and obstacles she faces are very specific – to the cultures that influence her, to her gender, to her generation. 
But I think many of them are also universal. The most obvious one is the false hope offered by the concept of ‘the American Dream’. Every country portrays itself in a certain way, but there’s an almost magical quality infused into ideas about the U.S.A. Ifemelu, like so many others, finds her experiences to be so vastly different from those images. 

But those experiences, even the most negative ones, help her find her voice. In a very twenty-first century formulation of the Bildungsroman genre, Ifemelu turns to blogging to help her try to understand American attitudes to race, to share her ideas with the world, and confront those inequalities head-on. There’s an episode regarding magazines that I found particularly important.

I chose Americanah for #ShePersisted because after initially trying to compromise important aspects of her Nigerian heritage to fit in with American life, Ifemelu realises that doing so made her intensely unhappy. She then refuses to deny her native culture, her accent, her race, but instead expresses these, make them part of herself and her life, in whatever ways are best for her. She makes her voice heard, even when she knows what she is saying won’t be pleasing to everyone.
Adichie herself takes this approach (you can watch some of her lectures and discussions online, she’s a great orator). To not dilute yourself or your identity for others is, I think, becoming more difficult in the Internet age, so Adichie and her creations are truly inspiring.

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Musings: March

Honestly, how is it March already? This year needs to slow down! So many books to be read and the days just seem to melt away. This month is a really busy one for me so I’m hoping I get chance to read. I want to finish ‘The Essex Serpent’, and get through The Glorious Heresies (Lisa McInerney), and perhaps a classic for a bit of a change. I’d also love to have finished the Harry Potter series before I go to see The Cursed Child in the middle of the month but it’s not looking likely.
I’m in ‘March’ in The Essex Serpent too (I loved that coincidence of real life and book trajectory matching, hence the picture).
Perry is such a ‘visual’ writer – her metaphors and the descriptions of landscapes are so incredibly vivid. There’s so much ‘movement’ in her plot – at this point of the story, each chapter includes a character taking a long walk and/or having an extended period of contemplation. Perry manages to grasp both the physical and mental movements which is really effective: you feel like you’re literally being carried along.
She has a beautiful writing style that I’m finding really enjoyable and the plot and characters are engaging too. 
What is everyone else reading?