Book Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Neuroscience, the psychology of social conditioning, cultural paradigms, groupthink, the makings of successful businesspeople and leaders—all of these things come together in Susan Cain’s ultra-deep dive into introversion. Cain digs into studies, conducts her own on-the-ground research, and delves into her own experience as a consultant and, wait for it, introvert to expose what might be/probably is happening inside introverts’ brains in those contexts where they seem withdrawn and the others where they seem on fire.

As an introvert, I found this book both fascinating and confirming. Cain’s discussion of high-reactivity, elevated sensitivity, and sensory overload matched up with my own experience. A lot of the observations she shares in terms of balancing commitments with your available social energy are things I’ve learned on my own, particularly over the last few years.

Although the title may lead you to think this book is a constant slam on extroversion, it’s not. Cain points out the ways that modern Western society elevates extroversion and the blind spots that come with it (just because someone is the loudest person in the room—and thus, has everyone’s ear—doesn’t mean they have the best ideas), and she shows how making room for quiet people to contribute in a way that suits their temperament is beneficial for all. She also delves into how introverts can pass for extroverts and how sometimes that’s necessary, whether to get ideas into the world or accomplish a particular goal.

Quiet is a medium-length book as nonfiction goes and it’s rich with information, but it’s not dense and boring. Cain’s writing pairs a wealth of anecdotes with insightful information that frequently sparked my neural lightbulbs. And she writes to the everyday reader. Anyone who’s an introvert or extrovert or ambivert (i.e., everyone) and wants to better understand how they operate in the world—and how others of different temperaments operate—should pick up a copy.

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Book Review: Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

Music for Wartime: StoriesMusic for Wartime: Stories by Rebecca Makkai

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I bought this book after attending a reading by Rebecca Makkai and connecting with her writing. This collection of short stories marries creativity and originality with compelling characters in sometimes absurd situations. Stories vary in length and subject matter, but all connect somehow to the theme described in the title, “Music for Wartime.” I’ve read collections before where every story is melancholy and depressing; this is no such collection. Some end sadly or on bittersweet notes, but all of them challenge the reader’s narrow vision of herself and others. And several of the stories wrestle with the question of forgiveness and when it can, cannot, should, or should not be extended to: Nazis, false lovers, relatives who carried out unquestionable wrongs. Highly recommend.

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Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A nonlinear narrative composed of straightforward, at times lyrical, writing, The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a slave girl whose escape of the plantation leads to conflict and loss and love and meditations on what it means to be free. Whitehead’s writing is solid, but it took me a while to get into The Underground Railroad due to the conflict evoked in my brain by his portrayal of the railroad as an actual railroad running underground. Other than that detail, the story is richly textured with historical accuracies, many of which stirred up anger in myself toward the brutal history of this country and the so-called peculiar institution. I haven’t read much historical fiction since upper elementary and middle school, when I was basically obsessed with Ann Rinaldi’s work, so it was interesting to jump back into the genre as an adult reading historical fiction written for adults. This work was eye-opening in a way that makes me want to go back and relearn history, which isn’t a bad idea considering the times we’re living in. Told in third person with sections devoted to different characters, but the core of the story being Cora’s journey out of slavery and into freedom, The Underground Railroad takes you along for the journey. I recommend climbing aboard.

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You may have noticed almost all of my reviews have 4 or 5 stars. That’s because I don’t finish books I don’t like. Life’s too short to read bad books. I only review the good ones.

Good reads: Quests, real and hypothetical

Longform stories I’ve read lately and enjoyed.

Keepers of the Secrets by James Somers, The Village Voice
Step into the archives at the New York Public Library and meet “the most interesting man in the world.” He’s 39 and knows the archives more intimately than many parents know their own children. Those boxes of paper artifacts may look like tinder for your campfire, but this keeper of secrets knows they tell stories just waiting to be told.

My Journey to the Heart of the FOIA Request by Spenser Mestel, Longreads
FOIA. Freedom of Information Act. It’s the piece of legislation that makes government “secrets” available to the people. All you have to do is submit a request. And wait for the bureaucracy to handle it. This piece is an interesting look at the history and current state of FOIA, and the process required to receive a response.

Writer-in-Residence at a Homeless Shelter by John Cotter, Guernica
Join author John Cotter as he spends a month in a Colorado facility for the homeless, where he teaches a writing class and doesn’t go home at night. This is a moving, well-written consideration of homelessness and the people impacted by it. There are parts that brought tears to my eyes.

Dwayne Johnson for President by Caity Weaver, GQ
Last week, I dreamt that I completely forgot about an interview I’d scheduled for a story I’m working on because Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock, was hanging out with my family in our living room. This piece may have helped The Rock invade my subconscious. It’s a fun introduction to Johnson, who is apparently a big teddy bear who works out a lot.

What have I missed? If you’ve read something excellent lately, tell me about it by commenting below.

Book review: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Before the FallBefore the Fall by Noah Hawley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A private plane crashes in the middle of a short flight from Martha’s Vineyard to New York City. Before the Fall tells the stories of the characters involved: the painter who survived, swimming the four-year-old child to safety; the flight attendant and the copilot; the media magnate and his political friend; the wife and mother, now survived by one child and a sister married to a struggling writer. This is a story told in scenes and glimpses. Hawley cuts back and forth through time and space, from character to character, weaving the complexity that, though fiction, is convincing enough that it could be reality. Why do accidents happen? Or do they? Is there truly such a thing as an accident? Was this plane crash intentional on some earthly or cosmic level?

I highly recommend this book. Hawley’s prose is textured with detail that paints vivid portraits of people and events without weighing down the story. Chapters vary in length, but all of them move quickly, and you’re left wondering, “What if …?” This was a book I had to discipline myself with late at night, forcing myself to stop and go to bed even though I could have kept reading and reading. I’m about to track down more books by Noah Hawley because one was definitely not enough.

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Review of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Add this thriller to the top of your list.

Rachel. Megan. Anna. They’re three women whose lives are woven together in known and unknown ways. Rachel is the divorcee of Tom. Anna is the homewrecker now married to Tom. Megan lives down the street from Rachel’s former and Anna’s current home. The train line cuts behind both houses, and it’s from the train that Rachel watches the life she wished was hers.

Until one day, Rachel sees Megan’s face in the paper. She’s missing.

Paula Hawkins’ debut novel landed #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for good reason. With simple language that firmly grounds you in the modern British setting and carries the story without unnecessary confusion, The Girl on the Train is a story that’s too frighteningly believable — and well worth your time.

Hawkins’ words don’t paint lush portraits or jump to poetic heights. They’re too busy drawing you close to the characters, especially Rachel whose perspective begins and ends the book. As you read, you immerse into the complexity that is a human being whose past she both regrets and can’t leave behind.

Girl on TrainYou won’t want to trust Rachel’s narration — she doesn’t even trust herself — but you will hold your breath and hope for her. You’ll grimace and groan when she messes up again. You’ll yell at her not to go back. You’ll care about her in spite of yourself, in spite of her.

The Girl on the Train is about assumptions. Assumptions and speculations that people make about others, especially when they see them from a distance, literally or figuratively. It’s about how our assumptions, and the hopes behind them, blind us to reality (at best) and put us in dangerous positions (at worst). Maybe we can trust ourselves, maybe we can trust others, but we can’t trust our assumptions or speculations.

The Girl on the Train is driven by the internal monologue of the three characters. Each chapter is from another woman’s perspective, with Megan’s set several months behind (made clear by a dateline at the beginning of the chapter).

The changing perspectives didn’t jar my experience, but it took me forever to keep the men straight: is Scott the one Rachel was married to? Or was that Tom? I have a ridiculously hard time remembering character names and I blame my ongoing confusion on them both having one-syllable names with an “O” in the middle. (It’s a decent excuse.)

That’s my main complaint, though. In the future, I’d hope Hawkins would work toward more depth and complexity in her male characters and more emotional strength in her female characters, but the characters in The Girl on the Train only bothered me at the level they were supposed to. I hated who I was supposed to hate, and I liked who I was supposed to like.

The book isn’t super quotable, but I copied down these lines near the beginning. They’re both from Rachel’s perspective:

“I have never understood how people can blithely disregard the damage they do by following their hearts. Who was it [that] said that following your heart is a good thing? It is pure egotism, a selfishness to conquer all.” p. 31

“I will never begrudge him happiness — I only wish it could be with me.” p. 43

Who’s this book appropriate for?

I’d set it at 17+. It’s written for adults and has some sexual content that, while not being explicit or gratuitous, I wouldn’t want my 15-year-old self (or my 15-year-old sister, for that matter) reading. I’d recommend it to both men and women, because the story itself could spark a lot of introspection in both parties, but it might be too emotionally driven for the stereotypical man to be interested.

Good Reads: Dancing through a clouded life

This post is part of a series recommending longform, narrative nonfiction (as well as other worthwhile writings).

The Amateur Cloud Society That (Sort Of) Rattled the Scientific Community by Jon Mooallem, The New York Times Magazine

The most quotable piece I’ve read recently, this story examines the culture of cloud-loving in a way that observes science, philosophy, and love of life. There’s reflection (from the people involved, as well as the author), education (a healthy serving of cloud facts), history, and the impact of the Internet. Great piece.

Gotta Dance! by Elizabeth Gilbert, originally published in GQ, republished on Longform.

Elizabeth Gilbert is best known for her bestselling memoir, Eat Pray Love. This piece is from her previous work as a magazine writer. It’s a profile of a former swing dance icon who, when war service removed him from the limelight, became just a postman until he was “rediscovered” in the 90s’ swing dance revival. Cultural commentary and a fun personality, with Gilbert’s satisfying sentences, make this piece well worth your time.

How a Son Survived Being Injected with HIV by His Father by Justin Heckert, GQ

Twenty-four years ago, a little boy was betrayed by his father in a despicable act of malice. The title says it. But what it doesn’t say is what surrounded the betrayal and what followed the injection. Twenty-four years later, the boy has grown up and, against all odds, survived. Read it.

In a Perpetual Present by Erika Hayasaki, Wired

Imagine living today and forgetting it tomorrow. This woman’s life is basically Adam Sandler’s 50 First Dates and this story considers whether or not memory-less life could be a good thing, a counter-intuitive step forward, rather than the backward declension it at first seems. Bizarre.