Thursday, January 21, 2016

Book Review: Brooklyn on Fire by Lawrence H. Levy

Brooklyn on Fire
I enjoy a book with a plucky heroine, even more so in historical novels than contemporary ones. Spunk is easy to come by in the modern world where nobody blinks at a woman with a nontraditional career. Not so much in 1890 when society relegated all females to second-class status with only a minuscule chance of escaping the dictates of rigid class structure. The heroine, Mary Handley, is a nice fictional addition. Sacked from the police force for her less than condescending attitude, Mary works in a bookstore and sets up a consulting private detective business on the side. Readers should note Brooklyn on Fire is the second book in the Mary Handley series, but works as a stand-alone story. I didn’t read book one and had no trouble following the plot. Levy makes enough references to Mary’s earlier exploits so that her family and relationship with the Brooklyn Police Department are easily understood in context.

In Brooklyn on Fire, a woman hires Mary to look into the possible murder of her uncle that happened years ago. When her client is later found dead, Mary follows a twisted trail of clues in the search for justice. She tangles with the Brooklyn political machine, upper class New York society, the local police, and her own family. Mary’s investigations eventually lead down the murky path of government corruption and into an interesting subplot that involves securing a water supply for Brooklyn.

The pages of Brooklyn on Fire are strewn with details of historical events and real people from the 1890s. Levy has a flair for describing rough-and-tumble life at the end of the nineteenth century. He mixes fiction and history in an entertaining way in order to depict the power struggles between the men who ran Brooklyn before it became part of New York City. The metropolitan area was a dangerous place, especially for a woman who pokes her nose into criminal activities. Luckily, our determined heroine also knows ju-jitsu.

Quibbles and Bits
Let’s face it, Mary’s romance with a Vanderbilt is a stretch. No matter how plucky the heroine, it’s not likely the two could ever have had even a short-lived relationship, let alone travel together in the Victorian Era as they do in the book. Also, in a novel with a large cast of characters, both Mary’s brother and another man are named Sean. Two people with the same name in a book always bugs me. These criticisms are minor, and any reader with an interest in historical fiction should check out Mary Handley’s adventures.

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for a review. 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Book Review of Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing by Jamie Holmes

Let’s ring in the New Year with a little nonsense, more precisely confusion and ambiguity. Modern life is full of conflicting advice and unanswered questions which leave people with vaguely unsettled feelings. What happens when we’re uncertain? How do we make the best decision when faced with a problem with multiple solutions? Jamie Holmes has written an insightful book that tries to answer the question do you embrace ambiguity or be like me—hunch in a corner and sob quietly?

People fear uncertainty. The need to resolve anxious feelings is deeply rooted and multifaceted. It can also be dangerous, especially during periods of social, political or economic confusion. The desire for fixed solutions is so great voices in the margins are shunted aside. “Fear and uncertainty...intensify people’s appetites for absolutes.” Donald Trump gleefully mouthing a platform of wide-eyed hysteria that all Muslims are bad gels nicely with a study Holmes cites on prejudice. Prejudiced people cling to the past with rigid thinking, refuse to consider all sides, and “latch on to what is familiar, safe, simple, definite.”

Embrace failure
Uncertainty is unpleasant, but in the classroom under the right conditions, uncertainty is a very good thing. People who are sure of themselves, rigid, and uncompromising, are neither innovative nor creative. Those qualities come from not knowing an outcome and trying alternatives. Having your child fail and not immediately jumping to the rescue is difficult for a parent, but “the best way to help students innovate is ”to move beyond standard grading measures and reward students for their willingness to experiment, tolerate failure, and take calculated risks.” Feelings of certainty should not be thought of as failure, but rather desirable and the key to innovative thinking.

According to Holmes, the positive aspects can also be applied to the business word. Successful innovation often comes after a string of failures. A satisfied person doesn’t look to the future and wonder what if? That edgy feeling keeps you on your toes. While businesses routinely examine failures, Holmes produces examples from companies such as Ducati, Zara, and Piggly Wiggly that successes should be put under the same scrutiny. “Embracing uncertainty after success means…always question the roles played by unforeseen factors.” Knowing your success is more than luck is as important as having the reasons for failure.

Heavy on the social sciences, easy on the noggin
Although heavy on the social sciences, this is a very readable book. Holmes breaks down complex issues into easily digestible pieces and offers several entertaining thought experiments to determine your level of rigid thinking. I scored in the mid-range so for my New Year’s resolution, I’ll stop sobbing, get out of that corner, and embrace a little more nonsense.  On that point, I’m not ambiguous, but certain.