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  • Cam Rhys Lay

5 Short Book Reviews


I've been trying to write reviews of all the books I've read in 2019 and have fallen terribly behind. In order to catch up, I decided to combine several reviews into one post and keep them each to about a paragraph or two. More long form reviews to come.


The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis


The Undoing Project tells the story of the friendship between two famed cognitive psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, whose groundbreaking work looks at the ways people think and make decisions--often in erroneous ways. If this book were my first exposure to the work of Kahneman and Tversky, I probably would have liked the book more in that the actual work of the two is absolutely fascinating. The problem with The Undoing Project though is that the research of K & T is better described in the actual books of the two men (for instance in Choices, Values, and Frames or more recently, and popularly, Thinking Fast and Slow). The Undoing Project tries to justify its existence by spending equal time on the two men's work and their friendship, but as I read the book I kept feeling that the research was just much more interesting than the relationship. Perhaps a good read if you're a fan of Michael Lewis or want more information on the personal lives of Kahneman and Tversky, but I definitely recommend starting with one of the other books mentioned.


Side note: I read one interesting review that hypothesized that the reason Lewis centered this book on the personal lives of K & T (as opposed to just their work) was so it could more easily be made into a movie (which was far more profitable for Lewis than simply publishing a book). An interesting, though perhaps cynical, theory.


Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney


Conversations With Friends is Sally Rooney's much heralded debut novel in which two female college students in Ireland (Frances and Bobbi) begin spending a lot of time with an older married couple (Melissa and Nick). Soon, Frances begins having an affair with Nick and the four become embroiled in a kind of unhealthy love quadrilateral. Despite coming at the book skeptically given the hype, I ultimately couldn't help but become engrossed in it. Still, upon finishing, I had a hard time identifying what I loved so much about the novel. Some reviews have discussed how "realistic" the characters and dialogue are, but for me that seems insufficient to describe what I enjoyed. After additional thought, where I've landed is that Rooney just does a fantastic job creating four rich characters whose relationships to each other are extremely fraught with complexity and tension, which, in turn, ends up propelling the narrative forward. For instance, Frances is having an affair with Nick, who she met through Nick's wife Melissa, who her best friend and former lover, Bobbi, has a crush on, etc., etc. This web of emotional entanglements helps charge each scene and interaction with a potential and energy. Needless to say, after reading Conversations with Friends, I'm very much looking forward to reading Rooney's follow up, Normal People, which was released several weeks ago.


Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman


Soon I Will Be Invincible is a novel set in a world where superheroes and super villains exist just like they do in the comic books. The story is told through two alternating points of view: Dr. Impossible, the archetypal "evil genius" who seems to have been modeled on Lex Luther, and Fatale, a cyborg and rookie hero. The novel delights in world building and playing with every superhero cliche, and many of the characters seem to be near exact replicas of heroes from the comics: CoreFire is Superman, Graywolf is Batman, Damsel is Wonder Woman and Mr. Mystic is Dr. Strange, etc., etc. One of the many flaws in this book is that with all the world building and backstory the narrative has too little forward motion. We learn the history of many, many characters, but very little happens in the main narrative of the novel. Another issue I had is that the book seems to value cleverness and fanboy jokes/ allusions above all else. Further, I was never sure if the book was satirizing comic books or paying homage to them. This book has a fun premise, but the actual execution left much to be desired.


Feck Perfuction by James Victore


Feck Perfuction is a short, motivational, self-help book aimed particularly at people trying to do creative work. The book is broken up roughly into seventy-five mini vignettes that make it a particularly quick and snackable read. Many of the insights are things readers have heard before, but I suppose sometimes hearing the same thing over again (albeit from a fresh perspective) is exactly what people need when they're in a rut. I'm naturally dubious of this kind of book, but Feck Perfuction is written with an earnestness and authenticity that makes it extra persuasive and enjoyable. Perfect (or Perfuct?) for people who enjoy the work of Austin Kleon. Recommended.


Elevation by Stephen King


Elevation is a short novel about a man living in Castle Rock, Maine (the setting of many a King tale) who discovers that his weight is strangely decreasing even though his physical appearance remains completely unchanged. Over the course of the story, what starts out as a small-scale speculative story that could probably easily fit into an episode of The Twilight Zone, transforms into a morality tale about tolerance and acceptance. Though the scope and ambition of Elevation is nowhere near that of some of King's better known works, I found myself surprisingly moved by this book. A solid story for someone looking for a short, upbeat read.



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