23 March 2014

Book Review: Stardust


StardustStardust by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this book because of Buzzfeed.  No really. I did.  Yes, I'm getting my book recommendations from a website with questionable editorial acumen but unquestioned purview and influence in our increasingly uncurated world; a place in which any schmo can write a review, or even make a suggestion that I might like this book because I liked Phantom Tollbooth and I say "Hmmm.  Maybe.  I'll try it." Heaven help us all.

But finding books in unlikely places allows one to find books you might not have found otherwise.  This can be good.  This can be bad.  In the case of this particular book, it was somewhere in between; in that middle-ground country occupied by a feeling of ambivalence, a shrug of the shoulders and exhalation that sounds something like "Eh...."

A fairy-tale for grownups.  Which just means that you are lured into that safe place of a tale for children, then someone has sex.  Or a fallen star whispers "fuck."  Jarring at first but either Gaiman, after the job of reminding you ever-so-not-gently that this is, indeed, meant to be for adults ("nipples") he got back to the work of telling a story.

And it wasn't a bad story.  I found myself wanting to get to the end of it so I could find out if the connections I made were the right connections. And they were, of course, because there wasn't much magic to the story in the end.

There was potential, for sure.  Like the idea that the lands of Faeire were bigger "than the world (for, since the dawn of time, each land that has been forced off the map by explorers and the brave going on and proving it wasn't there has taken refuge in Faerie; so it is not, by the time that we come to write of it, a most huge place indeed...)"

Or this throw-away moment;

"A fieldmouse found a fallen hazelnut and began to bit into the hard shell of the nut with its sharp, ever-growing front teeth, not because it was hungry, but because it was a prince under an enchantment who could not regain his outer corm until he chewed the Nut of Wisdom.  But its excitement made it careless, and only the shadow that blotted out the moonlight warned it of the descent of a huge grey owl, who caught the mouse in its sharp talons and rose again into the night.  The mouse dropped the nut, which fell into the brook and was carried away, to be swallowed by a salmon.  The owl swallowed the mouse in just a couple of gulps, leaving just its tail trailing from her mouth, like a length of bootlace.  Something snuffled and grunted as it pushed through the thicket---a badger, thought the owl (herself under a curse, and only able to resume her rightful shape if she consumed a mouse who had eaten the Nut of Wisdom), or perhaps a small bear."

But Gaiman never went the direction I wanted him to go.  He overviewed when I wanted him to dig deeper.  He dug deeper when I wanted him to overview.  And, meanwhile, the story lost its meaning.  Then the ending snuck up on me, ridiculous and unreal as fairy tale endings always are.

I rather enjoyed moments of Gaiman's prose.  Like the evil witch who declaims, "The squirrel has not yet found the acorn that will grow into the oak that will be cut to form the cradle of the babe who will grow to slay me."  Or the character that says, "There is a proverbial saying chiefly concerned with warning against too closely calculating the numerical value of unhatched chicks."

But, unlike Phantom Tollbooth, those moments were not woven tightly into the tapestry of the adventure.  They were clever bits, followed by some storytelling, followed by another clever bit.

You know, I should have realized that Buzzfeed should not be entirely trusted when I picked up the book and saw that the hero is named Tristran, not Tristan, as Buzzfeed suggests.  But fool me once, and I pick up another book from the same list, recommended because I liked Ramona Quimby when I was a kid.  Stay tuned.





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17 March 2014

Book Review: Counting by 7s


Counting by 7sCounting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is always so lovely to return to literature for young people after slogging through philosophical tomes aimed at adults.  Invariably, I learn more from kid lit fiction than I do from adult self-help books.  Makes me want to go to the self-help section of the bookstore and reorganize a bit.

I'd put this book in the section about how to deal with grief.  But also in the section about how to create meaning in life.  And in the gardening how-to section.

"It has been my experience that rewarding and heartbreaking often go hand in hand."

"I have seen trees that survive fire.  Their bark is burned and their limbs are dead branches.  But hidden under that skeleton is a force that sends a single shoot of green out into the world.  Maybe if I'm lucky, that will one day happen to me.  But right now, I can't see it."

"...almost everything I pursue is for my own understanding or amusement.  I believe having an audience naturally corrupts the performance."

"I realize now that I'm worrying about all of them.  It's better than worrying about myself.  This is one of the secrets that I have learned in the last few months.  When you care about other people, it takes the spotlight off your own drama."


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Book Review: Man's Search for Meaning


Man's Search for MeaningMan's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I so wanted to like this book more than I did.  Maybe I am too saturated with Holocaust stories because of the work I do.  Or maybe I am just in a mental place where I am not as open to these ideas.  Or maybe these ideas about how to live and be are known to me, even when they are hard to live by.

That said, I still dog-eared several pages and have these take-aways and reminders;

You can't control things.  But you can control your reaction to things.
Suffering fills the soul and the conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is big or small.  Frankl says, "man's suffering is similar to the behavior of gas.  If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber."

No one has the right to do wrong, even if wrong has been done to them.

Frankl's discussion of existential despair in the second portion of the book made me wish he were alive today to comment and guide, in a time when we are busying ourselves with screens and inflated but tenuous indirect connections that boil down to very little of substance.  Of meaning.  In a day when we are more often medicated instead of being encouraged and supported while we explore and try to conquer the demons  "A man's concern, even in his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease.  It may well be that interpreting  the first in terms of teh latter motivates a doctor to bury his patient's existential despair under a heap of tranquilizing drugs.  It is his task, rather, to pilot the patient through his existential crisis of growth and development."

But as Nietzsche said, "He who has a why to live can bear almost any how."  So off I go to post this review on Facebook and hope that it receives some likes to give my reading a book about meaning some meaning.  


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Book Review: Difficult Conversations


Difficult ConversationsDifficult Conversations by Douglas Stone
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Let me 'splain.  No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

Empathize.  And Listen in a way that makes the listener feel heard.

The end.


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06 January 2014

Book Review: Little Bee


Little BeeLittle Bee by Chris Cleave
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The back cover blurb claims that the magic of this story is not what happens, but how the story unfolds.  I disagree.  I think the magic is not in the story or the plot.  The magic is in the moments, the small worlds within the larger world of the novel, that Cleave creates with his prose.

Cleave paints a complex tale of interior conflict arising from a tale of exterior conflict.  And while the exterior conflict of Cleave's characters is intense, dramatic and highly political, the interior conflict is what drives the book forward. The politics of Cleave's book become secondary because Cleave chooses interior over exterior.  He studiously avoids painting the blatant swath of a morality tale; instead, he invests in the smaller story that trickles out like a tributary from a powerful river.

And somehow when Cleave, a white, privileged male, channels a black, African teenage girl, he is at his best.  When he puts himself into her world and her thoughts, his prose resonates with meaning and thoughtfulness;

"I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly.  That is what the scar makers want us to think.  But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them.  We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret.  Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying.  A scar means, I survived."

"This was always my trouble when I was learning to speak your language.  Every word can defend itself.  Just when you go to grab it, it can split into two separate meanings so the understanding closes on empty air.  I admire you people.  You are like sorcerers and you have made your language as safe as your money."

"In your country, if you are not scared enough already, you can go to watch a horror film.  Afterward, you can go out of the cinema into the night and for a little while there is horror in everything...For one hour you are haunted, and you do not trust anybody, and then the feeling fades away.  Horror in your country is something you take a dose of to remind yourself that you are not suffering from it."

"I do not know why the small puddle of urine made me start to cry.  I do not know why the mind chooses these small things to break itself on."

Cleave doesn't do as well with the white Brits of his tale, though there are a few moments;

"I'm so sorry, Charlie.  Mummy is too grown up to feel very much anymore, and so when she does, it catches her by surprise."

"There's eight million people here pretending the others aren't getting on their nerves.  I believe it's called civilization."

But despite the gorgeous prose Little Bee was somewhat of a disappointment.  Look past some of the more beautiful writing and it becomes simply the story of three unlikeable adults, one loosely-drawn and mostly annoying child and a girl who we only get a chance to know through her story of personal tragedy.  Add a nebulous ending and you get one of those books that you finish and throw aside in disgust.  But you aren't sorry you read it.  And parts of it stick with you long after you've returned it to the shelf.



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Book Review: Eighty Days


Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the WorldEighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love history books that expand outside the main story and provide tangents to enrich my reading experience AND give me random trivia to blurt out in a Cliff Clavin-like way.  This is one of those books.  The original story was intriguing to me, as I had never heard of the race between these two women, but then Goodman adds things like;

The Statue of Liberty was originally supposed to stand at the mouth of the Suez Canal, dressed in the veil and dress of an Egyptian peasant, holding a lantern, representing the light of Egypt bringing progress to Asia.  But Egypt's leaders thought it was too expensive, so it was re-imagined as liberty and shoveled off to the US.  But it was too expensive for us, too;  Congress refused to allocate funds to build a pedestal.  So the centennial came and went and Lady Liberty was sitting in a warehouse somewhere.  They put her right arm outside Madison Square Park to try to bring attention to her plight.  It was there for 7 years and the money was still not raised.  Finally, Joseph Pulitzer issued a personal appeal for funds in the pages of his paper, The World and the paper's working class readers, sent pennies and nickels.  Five months later, the 100k needed was raised, 80% from donations of less than a dollar.  And Lady Liberty took her place in the harbor.  Crowd-funding before the word existed.

Did you know until the latter decades of the 19th century, communities had the power to establish their own time zones?  Local mean time, they called it, determined by the position of the sun as it passed overhead.  Illinois had 27 different time zones, Wisconsin, 38.  The train station in Pittsburgh had six clocks and each one showed a different time.  When it was noon in Washington, D.C., it was 12:08 in Philadelphia, 12:12 in New York and 12:24 in Boston.  Of course, trains that could traverse a mile a minute made local mean time untenable.  So in October 1883, the largest railroad companies had meeting and declared that the country would be divided into four time zones, corresponding to the mean sun time at the meridians near Philadelphia, Memphis, Denver and Fresno. The president, the Congress and the courts had nothing to do with it but it became the law of the land.  On November 18, 1883, clocks were changed.

Otherwise, this book highlighted the amazing strides in travel in only 120 years.  Elizabeth Bisland believed that humans were not made to travel a mile a minute.  "She wondered how coming generations, who would surely travel one hundred or even one hundred fifty miles and hour, could possibly handle the strain of it.  Some process of adaptation to the new environment would doubtless take place: humanity, it seemed, always found a way to bear what had previously seemed unbearable."  What would she think now?

And Nellie Bly despised the British (whose transport she was forced to use as they had developed it in pursuit of their empire)  Goodman writes, "As she traveled among the English, Nellie Bly was becoming increasingly conscious of the peculiar privilege that imperial power conferred upon its citizens; the privilege of insensitivity.  They could, if they chose to, carry the empire along with them on their travels, as they sailed on English ships, slept in English hotels, ate English meals, taking little notice of the specific characteristics of the countries through which they passed..."  Huh.  That's exactly the complaint I have about American tourists now.  And cruise ships.  And tour buses, that allow people to wander through a country without having to touch, smell or taste it.  The more things change...

In 1910, Elizabeth Bisland returned to Japan with her husband.  She was looking "for the Japan of the Japanese, 'light, fine, frail, with a touch of whimsey; of gay fancifulness; of soft delicate fairness and flowery quiet.'  That Japan, though, was becoming increasingly difficult to find; the new trains brought swarms of tourists, and the streets were lined with the modern hotels and teahouses that catered to them. 'One wouldn't begrudge the tourist so if he seemed to enjoy it, but his perspiring pervasiveness apparently derives nothing but fatigue from the effort, and one can't but wish he'd leave the places of beauty alone to the few who do get comfort out of them.'" Bisland considered the world "utterly destroyed by our loathsome Occidental 'improvements.'"

And as the ladies traveled, they asked questions like, "Why do Chinese women bind their feet?" only to receive the non-answer, "Why do European women wear corsets and pinch their waists?"  World travel makes you question your own fashion, customs and ideas in ways that these women had never had the chance to experience.  In our internet-laden present, the world is smaller.  But are we paying attention the way these wide-eyed, intellectually curious ladies did in the late 1800s?  Or has the world shrunk so much and become so universal (with our loathsome Occidental improvements) that the common ground has overtaken the differences?



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19 September 2013

Book Review; A Whole New Mind


A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the FutureA Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel H. Pink
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Despite the fact that every time I saw the cover of this book, the song "A Whole New World" from Aladdin was stuck in my head for hours, I still kind of enjoyed this book.

And the "kind of" has reasons beyond annoying earworms.  Pink's thesis is this; we are transitioning from an Information Age economy to a Conceptual Age economy.  So we'd best get ready.

"For nearly a century, Western society in general, and American society in particular, has been dominated by a form of thinking and an approach to life that is narrowly reductive and deeply analytical.  Ours has been the age of the 'knowledge worker,' the well-educated manipulator of information and deployer of expertise.  But that is changing.  Thanks to an array of forces--material abundance that is deepening our nonmaterial yearnings, globalization that is shipping white-collar work overseas, and powerful technologies that are eliminating certain kinds of work altogether--we are entering a new age.  It is an age animated by a different form of thinking and a new approach to life--one that prizes aptitudes that I call 'high concept' and 'high touch.'  High concept involves the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into something new.  High touch involves the ability to empathize with others, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in one's self and to elicit it in others, and to stretch beyond the quotidian in pursuit of purpose and meaning."

Phew.  But that's the book.  Then Pink spends the next 250 pages over-explaining himself and gazing at his navel.  Pink tries to avoid the overused terms "right brain" and "left brain" but ends up with the equally divisive terms "R-Directed Thinking" and "L-Directed Thinking" in his quest to demonstrate that we're moving into a world where creativity will increasingly make logic take a back seat. Pink is not predicting a world where "millionaire potters drive BMWs and computer programmers scrub counters at Chick-fil-A."  Pink goes ont to say, "L-Directed Thinking remains indispensable.  It's just no longer sufficient.  In the Conceptual Age, what we need instead is a whole new mind. (cue music from Aladdin)

Pink then presents the reader with "tools" to develop the "six senses" Pink believes will be the most in demand as we move into this age; Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play and Meaning.

Design; people heal faster and work more productively in hospitals and offices that demonstrate thoughtful aesthetics of design.

Now that facts are so widely available and instantly accessible, they are not as valuable as they used to be.  Computers will always be faster at gathering and organizing information, so what becomes valuable is someone, a real, live, person, who can make sense of the facts.  Story; stringing those facts together in a context that has emotional impact.  Symphony; putting the facts together in a way that makes them stronger and more persuasive.  Empathy; one thing computers cannot do, and will probably never be able to do, is demonstrate empathy. Play; a move away from sober seriousness as a measure of ability.  Meaning; people have enough to live, but nothing to live for--we must find a way to find meaning.

So, really, this book is about the fact that being human is going to be increasingly valuable and we should embrace our human-ness.  We've spent the last fifty years trying to be more like the machines but as the machines have progressed, we can't keep up.  So we're left with making a point of being different than the machines; providing something the machines cannot.  Pink's six traits are human traits that have been suppressed during the Information Age.  They are now ready for a renaissance.

Why did I just "kind of" like this book?  Pink provides a chapter on the six senses and then a "portfolio" to improve on those six senses.  Ugh.  I can just see stick-in-the-mud middle managers creating business meetings and retreats, replete with forced games and powerpoint presentations, designed to increase capacity for these six senses based on Pink's portfolios.  They would be following Pink's advice to the tee but totally missing the point AND the mark.  David Collison writes, "Attempts to manufacture humor can actually suppress it..."  I would submit that attempts to manufacture ANY of these six senses will, in effect, suppress them.  As soon as my boss tells me I HAVE to be funny, I probably won't really be able to be funny anymore.  What organizations need to do is find people who have these skills in abundance already.  And then let those skills start to change their organizations.

I may be delusional, but I think I have most of these traits and bring them to my work.  Let's take "play," for example.  I cannot count the number of times I've been in trouble at work for laughing and showing joy. Just yesterday, a coworker said, "Don't let the others know you're having fun."  Why not?  I was doing the work; I just found a way to make it enjoyable for myself and the other two coworkers with whom I was collaborating.  Is fun inherently bad?   Not according to Pink.  He cites research that found that the most effective leaders within organizations are funny and had their charges laughing three times more often than their managerial counterparts.  Score!  I'm funny!  I win!  Yay me!   But Pink's book is now almost 10 years old and we're still mired in L-Directed Thinking; yesterday's encounter proves it.

So make your middle managers read this book.  It is unlikely that they will be able to change and suddenly embrace these senses and embody them authentically.   And that's ok.  But they they are in a position to change their departments, and the larger organization, by restructuring the human make-up of the employees who work for them.  Organizations should keep, and value, effective L-Directed thinkers.  We need them.  But we also need poets and musicians and actors and artists.  They won't alway fit in.  Or wear proper business attire.  Or be serious.  They won't always be brilliant.  Or have life-changing ideas.  They may not always be inspiring.  Hire them anyway.  And watch how the culture changes.


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