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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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16 September 2013

Book Review: The War Lovers

The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898 by Evan Thomas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Would we have gone to war in Cuba without Hearst, Roosevelt and Lodge?

Would we have gone to war in Iraq without Cheney, Rumsfeld and Murdoch?

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Thomas' thesis is that worries about the weakening of the Anglo-Saxon race, combined with the rise of strong women, created a generation of men with free-floating anxiety and angst that was only cured by strenuous exercise and war-lust.

That was in 1898.  But read it again.  Could be now, couldn't it?  Cross-fit and Afghanistan.

Thomas' book concentrates on a select few figures, one of which is philosopher William James.  James, who taught at Harvard (taught Roosevelt and Lodge, in fact) had the "good sense, and the rare judgement, to see through the social Darwinists."  James was not "free of the prejudices of his age, but he was unusually--among his fellow academics, almost uniquely--open to the idea that different races had different qualities, and that one should learn from them, and not simply judge."

Outside of James, the prevalent teaching was Anglo-Saxon superiority, which requires the parallel belief of All-Other-Race inferiority.  W.E.B. DuBois studied with James.  Roosevelt was more partial to a man named Norman Shaler, a social Darwinist who worried that "alien races" would water down good American stock.

On the surface, Shaler paired fighting for the independence of the dark-skinned Cubans seems oxymoronic.  Just as the strenuous exercise and war-lust paired with the prevalence of nervous exhaustion seems so.  But logic is rarely a driving force in history.

Take the sinking of the Maine, one of the reasons the US sent troops to Cuba.  The ship blew up.  Logical minds thought, "Accident," because the coal bunker was right next to the gunpowder magazine.  But Hearst ignored logic, stirred up conspiracy, ignored facts and presented the kind of news that is less news and more fodder for advertising dollars and sales.

And then there's Spain, who knew they would lose a war with America but felt the need to fight one anyway because of a concept called punctilio: better to be defeated than to be seen backing down (at one point, they even fought a fake battle, but got confused and people died anyway)

By the time the first shots were fired, the war was actually mostly over but it led to a quagmire in the Phillippines, which Korea and Vietnam echoed a half-a-century later.  And the question of how Cuba would govern itself has multiple echoes in the 20th century.

Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. --  Edmund Burke

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the shadow

T.S. Eliot

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04 September 2013

Book Review: Ike and Dick

Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political MarriageIke and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage by Jeffrey Frank
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I think this book should have a different title; perhaps something like

"Dick! (with a sprinkling of Ike)"

But the imbalance doesn't even bother me in light of my other concerns about this dual biography.

Though I know very little about these two men, I don't feel all that enlightened after reading this book.  Frank seems to be balancing on a line between too much and too little information and, for me, he never quite got it right.  He assumed I knew things I didn't.  He barely mentioned things I wanted to know more about.  He repeated things I didn't really care about.  And, worst of all, for me, he put words and thoughts into both of these historical figures mouths.

This is Frank's description of Nixon while Eisenhower was lying in state: "Nixon's military aide, Don Hughes, was sitting close to the president and saw that as he left the Rotunda he broke down again.  It is hard, though, to imagine those were tears of grief.  They are better explained by Nixon's continuing sadness at never having been admitted to the general's small, rarely expanded circle, the one that he reserved for friends."

How the hell do you know that, Mr. Frank?  Why would you presume to assume something and then declare it as fact?  Did you make an executive decision based on your research?  If so, why not tell me why you think that?

The book is filled with moments such as this, weakening an already weak history.

Frank makes Eisenhower into a passive-aggressive flip-flopper who is so eminently unlikeable that you wonder why Nixon continued to work so hard to seek his approval.  Nixon is gruff and too driven and seems to lose his mind before he's elected president (one of those things I found worthy of more exploration but which Frank glosses over, like most other interesting story lines).

I came away from this book completely disinterested in the both of them.  Which is unfortunate.  Because I still think that, handled better, these two men, and their era, could be fascinating.

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30 August 2013

Book Review: Then We Came to the End

Then We Came to the EndThen We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The whole time I was reading this book, I felt like a weird hanger-on gossip.  I didn't like any of these people.  But I kept reading about them.  Like I would have kept listening to Benny gossip about them if I worked in this  office peopled with such off-center characters.  Ferris narrates but his character is never defined.  Never says anything.  Never even really expresses an opinion.  He's a ghost.  He's the intern that no one pays attention to but who writes the revealing novel later.

Then I came to the end and Ferris wrote, "We were the only two left.  Just the two of us, you and me."

Dammit!  He made me complicit in his seedy little world of corporate ridiculousness.  With two sentences, he transformed me from an observer to a participant.  And then I had to wonder; if I had been there, would I have taken these people on as projects? Would I have tried to help them find a path towards something more meaningful or happy or comforting?  Probably not.  So I actually felt guilty for not trying to help these people, these fake people who are fake, but are real, too.  

And then he'd write stuff like this;

"There was so much unpleasantness in the workaday world.  The last thing you ever wanted to do at night was go home and do the dishes.  And just the idea that part of the weekend had to be dedicated to getting the oil changed and doing the laundry was enough to make those of us still full from lunch want to lie down in the hallway and force anyone dumb enough to remain committed to walk around us...But enough daydreaming.  Our desks were waiting, we had work to do.  And work was everything.  We liked to think it was family, it was God, it was following football on Sundays, it was shopping with the girls or a strong drink on Saturday night, that it was love, that it was sex, that it was keeping our eye on retirement.  But at two in the afternoon with bills to pay and layoffs hovering over us, it was all about the work."

"If in large part we were concerned only with making through another day without getting laid off, there was a smaller park just hoping to leave for the night without contributing to someone's lifetime of hurt."

"Maybe there was an alternative to wealth and success as the fulfillment of the American dream.  Or maybe that was the dream of a different nation, in some future world order, and we were stuck in the dark ages of luxury and comfort.  how could we be expected to break out of it, we who were overpaid, well-insured and bonanaza'd with credit, we who were untrained in the enlightened practice of putting ourselves second?"

Blergh.  I don't want to think about this in my spare time when I'm trying to reassure myself that my life is about more than my job.  I'm going back to reading history.

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Book Review: Berlin 1961

Berlin 1961Berlin 1961 by Frederick Kempe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'll open this review with an admission of my ignorance.  I had no idea Berlin was located so deep in East Germany.  In my head, my whole life, Berlin sat on the border and the wall reflected that larger border.

So to find out (and probably not for the first time, but this was the first time it stuck) that Berlin was a strange island.  So then I kept thinking of the Vienna of The Third Man and wondering how many other places were so strangely divided.

Oh, the Cold War.  Such an odd moment in history.

Because most of the historical lessons of this book were new to me, I cannot speak with assurance on its accuracy or fairness.  Kempe does not think highly of Kennedy's handling in 1961 and, in reading this account, I'm amazed that history has been so kind to him (though he apparently redeemed himself in 1962)

My take-away is simple;  politics is filled with regular people acting poorly, misreading each other, gossiping, manipulating, lying, redefining truth and posturing.  It's like junior high but with a lot more at stake.

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08 August 2013

Book Review -- The Storytelling Animal

The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us HumanThe Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You know you're behind in your reading when you can't remember when or why you put a book on your Goodreads "to-read" list.

Interesting and engaging read.  A little disjunct, particularly when Gottschall throws in actual stories in the middle of explaining stories.  And I could have done without most of the pictures; they added little to the dialog so it almost felt like the pictures you find in a high school history book, designed to capture the kids who don't really want to read the book and aren't interested in history anyway.  Those pictures always fail, too.

The basic premise is that humans are creatures of story.  So there must be some evolutionary purpose to our story-telling.  Gottschall kind of fails in proving his thesis but it was interesting to watch him try.

"Our hands are tools, but evolution did not shape them for one single thing--it is for many things.  What is true for the hand is true for many other body parts.  Eyes are mainly for seeing, but they also help us communicate our emotions.  They narrow when we sneer and when we laugh.  They water when we are very sad and, strangely enough, when we are very happy.  We have lips because we need a hole to take in food and breath.  But lips are multipurpose, too.  We use them to express affection through kisses.  We flex our lips to let people know what's going on inside our skulls: if we are happy, sad, or killing mad.  And lips, of course, are also for speaking.  What is true for lips and hands is also true for the brain, and the behaviors driven by it.  Take generosity.  While evolutionary psychologists debate where humans sit on the continuum between selflessness and selfishness, it is obvious that humans behave generously under many conditions.  What is generosity for?  It is for a lot of things: enhancing reputation, wooing mates, attracting allies, helping kinsmen, banking favors, and so on.  Generosity isn't for any one thing, and it wasn't forged by a single evolutionary force.  Likewise the human penchant for story.  Fiction might be for a lot of things."

He goes on to speculate that story might be a mating ritual.  Or it might be a form of cognitive play.  Or maybe a low-cost source of information and vicarious experience.  Maybe stories delight in order that they may instruct.  Or maybe they simply form a social glue that brings people together.  Or maybe story is for nothing at all.

And that's what the book is about.  Exploring all of these options.

Take conspiracy theories.  According to Gottschall, they are not the "province of a googly-eyed lunatic fringe."  Conspiracy theories offer meaning.  They offer an answer to that eternal "why?"  "Bad things do not happen because of a wildly complex swirl of abstract historical and social variables.  They happen because bad men live to stalk our happiness.  And you can fight, and possibly even defeat, bad men. If you can read the hidden story."

To Gottschall, the same concept applies to religion; "humans conjure gods, spirits, and sprites to fill explanatory voids."  And it's not evolutionarily useless, either.  Religion makes society stable because it encourages humans to work together. To form groups.  "Elements of religion that appear irrational and dysfunctional often make perfectly good sense when judged by the only appropriate gold standard as far as evolutionary theory is concerned--what they case people do do." (Wilson - Darwin's Cathedral)  Religion binds people together to work for a group's interest.  Religion is a weapon of Darwinian survival.

So stories exist to explain our existence.  To explain the world.  Stories are around us everyday.  Lies honestly told. Embellishments to the mundane.  Expressions of how the world works through our unique and all-too-human lens of self-importance and ego.

By this token, memoirs ought to be shelved in fiction.  Not because the authors are blatantly lying (though some are) but because memoirs are not true.  They are fashioned.  "We spend our lives crafting stories that make us the noble--if flawed--protagonists of first-person dramas.  A life story is a 'personal myth' about who we are deep down--where we come from, how we got this way, and what it all means.  Our life stories are who we are.  They are our identity.  A life story is not, however, an objective account.  A life story is a carefully shaped narrative that is replete with strategic forgetting and skillfully spun meanings."  We are, in large part, only a figment of our own imaginations.  The need to see ourselves as the striving hero in a life that is epic taints our ability to see ourselves as we really are.  The kicker?  Depressed people have lost their positive illusions.  They are able to see that they aren't actually all that special.  Positive illusions, self-delusion, keeps us away from despair.  So we lie to ourselves to keep ourselves alive. To me, that's the most telling proof that stories are of evolutionary importance.

"Story--sacred and profane--is perhaps the main cohering force in human life.  A society is composed of fractious people with different personalities, goals and agendas.  What connects us beyond our kinship ties?  Story.  As John Gardner put it, fiction 'is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy.'  Story is the counterforce to social disorder, the tendency of things to fall apart.  Story is the center without which the rest cannot hold."

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16 June 2013

Book Review: Bel Canto - Ann Patchett

Bel CantoBel Canto by Ann Patchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I avoided this when it first came out because I figured it was about how the beauty of the voice can transcend violence and, being an about-to-be-failed singer, I didn't really want to delve into that glorious, if flawed, luxury of philosophical thought.

But I was on vacation this week.  And this book was sitting on my sister-in-law's bookshelf.  And I thought, "12 years is long enough to avoid a book."  So I dove in.

Phrases like "Most of the time we're loved for what we can do rather than for who we are" would have bothered the hell out of me 12 years ago.  But I was surprised to find that in my reading of the text, in my current state of life, singing seemed to have very little to do with the driving force of the plot.  Perhaps if I had read it 12 years ago when my own singing was still close, I would have felt differently.  But I viewed Roxane Coss less as a real-life diva and more as a representation of how art can be made to transcend language, societal ladder rungs and even violence.  But bullets still kill, no matter how heavenly the music may be.

At its core, this is a desert island story.  A Stockholm Syndrome exploration.  A ragtag assortment of characters make a life together because they have to.  And they begin, as humans do, to justify it.  To love it.  To fear leaving it even as they feared entering it in the first place.  It is a book, in the end, not about how art transcends humanity but how humans transcend humanity, using the simple tools of chosen oblivion and delusion.

The book ponders and wanders.  Then it ends abruptly and life for its characters ends or moves on in an unexpected direction.  And that's that.  Much like real life.

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An Accomplished Woman - Jude Morgan

An Accomplished WomanAn Accomplished Woman by Jude Morgan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I liked this one better than A Little Folly.  Maybe because the lead character is one of those politely sarcastic females, dripping their futile world-changing toxins within the constrains of a society that does not allow women to be powerful or single-minded.

Morgan again delights with his writing style and his sharp, observant tongue, which fits so well here because of his sharp, observant leading lady:

"Susannah did not so much sit down as demonstrate sitting down's beautiful possibilities.  From the sofa, all full breasts and flowing muslin, she beamed at her children and her life."

"'Oh, Culverton, yes,' cried George, who rowed in and out of conversations with a cheerful disregard for their drift..."

"'Really, I protest--what is left for the satirical mind to invent when reality so surpasses it?'"

"The removal of the first course interrupted, though it did not entirely stop, Mrs Vawser's tireless waving of the flag of personality.  She could still subject Mr Durrant to glances, glances away, and sharp suppressions of hilarity accompanied by slaps with her handkerchief: to all of which Mr Durrant presented the same look of a man being turned slowly into stone, and welcoming it."

"Lydia formed a dispiriting impression of a man living within thick walls of self-regard, unpierced by any ray of humour."

"'How do you like the music?' she asked.  'Artificial," he snapped, 'miserably artificial,' and he stared away: leaving Lydia to the interesting philosophic exercise of imagining what music with no artifice would sound like.  A man falling off a step-ladder, perhaps, as long as he did it spontaneously, and with no soul-destroying preparation."

While I was disappointed in the typical Regency romance ending (strong woman melting into the arms of reticent and powerful man) I found I rather enjoyed the prospect of two of them making a life together; not an altogether happy ending but an ending that is really the beginning of the story.  It's how all books should end.

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A Little Folly - Jude Morgan

A Little FollyA Little Folly by Jude Morgan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I spent the first several chapters of this book thinking "What's the point of reading this when I could be reading Jane Austen?"

Then something clicked.  Perhaps it was Morgan's clever turns of phrase:

"She would not allow praises to go to her head:--but they might be allowed to reach as far as her eyes, which, when she saw herself reflected in the hall mirror as they left, certainly seemed uncommonly bright."

"...he lounged away in a cloud of pomade and exclamation marks."

Or perhaps his clear-eyed description of trivial human failings;

"Sophie and Tom treated her with great fondness and indulgence, reassuring themselves that she had not suffered a moment's loneliness without them, commiserating her small ailments, loading her with presents they had bought at Lyme, and generally according her every sort of attention, compatible with not really taking any notice of her."

Or his sharp tongue:

"Is he not entrancing?  I could study him for hours.  It is not just the stupidity--it is the thoroughness with which it is kept up.  To remember all that slang, and not deviate into normal language here and there: to never say anything remotely interesting or thoughtful, even by accidental lapse--this requires a special kind of talent.  I can only look on in fascination.  I think the high point of the evening was when he called me a 'ninnyhammer.'"

Or his metaphoric wisdom:
"But she suspected that in many regards grown men, and women, did not grow up--that the fresh susceptibility of youth still sent its green shoots through the hard stones of experience."

Anyway, I'm hooked.  Pure Regency Fun.

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01 May 2013

Book Review: How Children Succeed

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of CharacterHow Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Paul Tough wrote the "biography" of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children's Zone I read a couple of years ago.  So when my boss asked me to read this, even though it's outside my frame of responsibility, I quickly consented.  I love a good theory book about how better learning and education can change the world.

Except this book is not that.  It's about how better people can change the world.  And it turns out that the things most of us think make better people may not necessarily be so.

If I had to summarize this book in one, terribly convoluted sentence, it would be, "Stress is bad except when it's good."

Tough spends a lot of time outlining how stress negatively affects our bodies; our stress-response system is mammalian, designed for short, acute bursts of stress, like running from a lion.  Our current society has translated that stress into a low-bubbling, constant flow.  Our bodies are not equipped to handle that.  And when you overload the stress system, there are serious and long-lasting negative effects.  When you overload a infant's or a child's stress system, it's even worse.

So keep your kid away from stress.

Except having no stress at all, no opportunity to fail, no situations that could result in a poor result, has a negative impact as well.  If you never have to really "try" and never really "fail" then you don't develop "grit" or what I call "sticktoitiveness" that's necessary to survive in the world.

So our privileged kids don't do well because we've made things too easy for them. And our challenged kids don't do well because we've made things too hard for them.

According to the KIPP schools, there are seven traits that predict achievement;  grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.  These schools even give their students "character report cards" that grade on these seven traits (a system that doesn't work in schools of privilege; a headmaster of one of those schools says, "With my school's specific population, as soon as you set up something like a report card, you're going to have a bunch of people doing test prep for it.  I don't want to come up with a metric around character that could then be gamed.")

OneGoal has winnowed it down to five and calls them "leadership principles";  resourcefulness, resilience, ambition, professionalism and integrity.

But success cannot be predicted solely by these character traits or leadership principles.  Motivation has to be there too.  And, what do you know, there's a metacognitive strategy for that; "Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions" or MCII.  Being an optimist doesn't work.  Being a pessimist doesn't work.  What works is something in between.  I always say "Plan for the worst, expect the best and the reality will fall somewhere in between."  Turns out this is the exact strategy MCII encourages;  "mental contrasting concentrates on a positive outcome while simultaneously concentrating on the obstacles in the way.  Doing both at the same time creates a strong association between future and reality that signals the need to overcome the obstacles in order to attain the desired future."

This is much more complex than "Dream and you can Do!"  And much more realistic.

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25 April 2013

Book Review: Gold by Chris Cleave

GoldGold by Chris Cleave
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don't read too many novels, so I'm not well-versed with current trends.  I suspect Chris Cleave is fitting into the the trendy moment of current literature but not knowing what the trends are, I approached this book without expectation.  And I found the structure exquisite, revealing information just like real life reveals information.  Without drama, without fanfare but surprising and shocking nonetheless.  The human psychology seemed real, too, as you end the book wondering why the heck those people acted that way and could live with the unconventional set-up without angst and turmoil.  Just like real life.

When Zoe is nervous before a race, her coach tells her that, at her age, it shouldn't be the big event that scares her; it should be "...the lingering sensation that in pursuit of my own exacting goals and objectives I might not have been as generous in spirit as I could have been with regard to the needs and dreams of the people I cared most about or for whom I was emotionally responsible."

Zoe "seethes" at this wisdom and that sets the path for the whole book; these characters don't grow in ways that the reader sees progress though they are given opportunities to grow.  Just like real life.

My biggest problem is that I didn't really like any of the characters; didn't understand their motivations, their patience with the selfish behavior of the other significant people in their lives or their choices.  The way Cleave structured the book I wanted to know their stories but, once I did, I didn't care that I knew them. I  don't know whether that's a failing of mine or a failing of the author's but, to me,  Zoe was downright annoying, Kate too pure and one-dimensional, Tom a caricature, Jack undefined and listless.  Young Sophie was the only one who resonated with me; her constructs to hide her illness because she didn't want to scare her parents were surprising in a world where attention seems to be something you grab at relentlessly.

Some lovely word combinations:

"...children were bottomless, echoing wells of need into which exhausted women...endlessly dropped brave little pebbles of certainty and anxiously listened for a splash that never came."

"...being friends with Zoe was like being knocked dizzy by grace."

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23 March 2013

Book Review: Incognito

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the BrainIncognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"The vast, wet, chemical-electrical network called the nervous system.  The machinery is utterly alien to us, and yet, somehow, it is us."

An entire book about how our conscious brain isn't really in charge, which necessitates changing our conscious thinking about who we are, the decisions we make, the art we create.

Take Coleridge.  He began using opium in 1796.  He wrote "Kubla Khan" while on an opium high.  So is the genius of that poem Coleridge's?  "We credit the beautiful words to Coleridge because they came from his brain...But he couldn't get hold of those words while sober, so who exactly does the credit for the poem belong to?"

The book is chock full of great food for thought; the blind lady who can see, creating the illusion of truth simply be repetition of lies, what a "gut feeling" really is, cognitive reserve fighting off Alzheimer's,

Perhaps the most (conscious)thought-provoking chapter was Eagleman's exploration about our penal system and how brain studies could allow us to change our ideas of guilt and capacity for reform. 

A fascinating read.  Perhaps dumbed-down a little too much but, frankly, had it been more intellectual, I would not have found it as intriguing and meaningful.

"The way we see the world is not necessarily what's out there: vision is a construction of the brain, and its only job is to generate a useful narrative at our scales of interaction.  Visual illusions reveal a deeper concept; that our thoughts are generated by machinery to which we have no direct access. Useful routines are burned down into the circuitry of the brain and consciousness seems to be about setting goals for what should be burned into the circuitry."

"The complexity of the system we are is so vast as to be indistinguishable from magic.  As the quip goes: If our brains were simple enough to be understood, we wouldn't be smart enough to understand them."

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Book Review - Madam, Will You Talk?

Madam, Will You Talk?Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I was about 11 and living in Mandeville, Jamaica, I was wandering around the dusty bookshelves of the used bookstore run by the cancer society, where my mom volunteered periodically.  I had a couple of dollars in my pocket, probably earmarked for an Archie digest comic book, but I picked this up instead.

During the next several months, I combed the used bookstore for more Mary Stewart. I was in luck; a whole shelf full of worn paperbacks that had that wonderful smell of aged paper. I read Nine Coaches Waiting, My Brother Michael, Wildfire at Midnight and Airs Above Ground.  I liked all of them.  But none of them as much as Madam, Will You Talk?

For years, it was a go-to book every couple of months.  We didn't have a library to frequent in Jamaica and I often would sit, staring at my bookshelf, wishing for something new to read. And when I didn't have anything new, I'd invariably pick this up.  And read it again.  And again.

Eight years later, the book fell apart in my hands. I taped it together with duct tape and got three or four more readings out of it but eventually had to throw it away.  Two years after that, I found another copy, same 75¢ Fawcett Crest Book edition, idling away its time in the philosophy section of used bookstore that obviously had lax organizational requirements.  By this time, I was finishing college and my re-reading became less frequent.  But when I was 28, I had to drive from Omaha, Nebraska to Kansas City, Missouri to hop on a flight to Texas to audition for grad school.  A blizzard hit but I made the drive anyway.  I packed a coffee can, a box of 500 matches, several rolls of toilet paper, a huge down comforter, a +10 sleeping bag, a sack full of food, a couple of gallons of water, my late 90s cell phone, a flashlight, extra batteries and Madam, Will You Talk.  And the whole drive, I was found myself wishing I'd slide off the road and get stuck, just so I could cuddle up in my sleeping bag, next to a nice TP fire-in-a-can, and read while I was waiting to be rescued.

I've not read this book in over ten years.  I picked it up earlier this week because I had miraculously caught up on my New Yorker reading and didn't have anything from the library cued up and ready to go.

It's just as good as it's always been.  And maybe even better.

So off I go on an indulgent re-read of Stewart's books, starting with The Rose Cottage, which is her last book (though she's still alive and kicking at the ripe age of 96, she has not published anything in 15 years)  Her books are often classified as romances but they aren't, really.  They are about strong women who aren't so strong that they don't worry about fashion or fall in love with the wrong men.  They are the Grace Kellys and the Audrey Hepburns of fiction.  They are the women I'd like to be.  In my next life, maybe.

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17 March 2013

Book Review: Eleanor and Park

Eleanor & ParkEleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I will use three emails my husband wrote to Rainbow while he was reading the book as my review:


Dear Rainbow,
I am on page 95. I think your next book needs to be more boring and have much longer chapters that start very boring.  You need to do this for those of us who have lives. You see I am going back to school to get certified to teach English to high school kids. I have real classes. And today I had a real test in a Blue Book. People have to study for tests. Even I have to study for tests. But it is hard to study when Rainbow's book is in your bag.

The problem is that your writing is the kind that sort of stops being writing and becomes just a flow. Then, boom, you hit the end of a section. Hmmm, you say, I guess I could just check out the first sentence or two. I mean, the sections are pretty short and all. Then... shit, I've read the whole thing. Effing Rainbow! I have to study!  Hmmm.  I guess I could just check out the first couple sentences of the next section.

This is a problem for me. I did get some studying done. And I did well on my test, I think. But I worry about brain surgeons or detectives or other people who need to focus on their jobs or people's brains don't get fixed or crimes don't get solved because of you.

So, in summary -- Quit writing such good books. Or at least wait until I'm on spring break or something to have them put in stores.


Dear Rainbow,
The hand rape line was really funny -- I need to stop reading to eat lunch now, but I may just read one more section.


Dear Rainbow,
Now you've screwed up a perfectly good nap window. I'm losing patience with you. I have to walk the dog now. Can't read and walk at the same time.

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20 February 2013

Book Review: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

The Evolution of Calpurnia TateThe Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A lovely read.  A turn of the 20th century girl who longs for more than what her lot holds.  Colorful characters, light on the angst, heavy on the atmosphere of central Texas in the summer of 1899, Darwin thrown in as a sideline.  No magic.  No secret societies. No intermittent cartoon graphics.  No vampires.  No dystopian futures.  So atypical of books for children these days.  Which is maybe why I liked it so much.

In describing an ongoing altercation between a cat and a possum, where the possum always plays dead, the cat stalks off triumphantly then the possum opens its eyes slyly and slinks away;

"The scene played night after night, all summer long. Neither I nor the adversaries ever fatigued of it.  How satisfying to have a bloodless war in which each side was equally convinced of its own triumph."

I hope I can get my nine year old boy to read it.

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09 February 2013

Book Review : Straphanger

Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the AutomobileStraphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile by Taras Grescoe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A combination of a manifesto against the automobile and an ode to trains.  With a coda grudgingly giving credit where credit is due to the bus.

One thesis is a worn one;  we're running out of oil to power our personal automobiles and even if we go electric, most electricity comes from coal.  So it's lose lose.

But Grescoe approaches his ode not from an environmental standpoint, but from a social standpoint.  And a community structure standpoint.  And a health standpoint.  The automobile has isolated us.  Dallas-Fort Worth is as large as Israel.  People have skin cancer on the left side of their bodies more often than the do on the right.  We're fat.

We are like this by choice;  we have chosen the freeway over the light rail. We have endowed personal ownership of a car as a symbolic representation of liberty, freedom and prosperity.  We've paved everything in sight and called it progress.  We have laws that require a minimum number parking spaces per development that guarantees that transit won't have a chance.  Developers operate with a formula that people won't walk more than 600 feet to get to a parked car and build with that in mind.

But if it's hard to drive, people take transit and transit improves and more people take transit and transit keeps improving.  But if you make it hard to drive, you are ousted from office.  So how do we invoke change?

Grescoe looks at 12 cities all over the world; paragons of transit and paragons of the car.

And the history is interesting.  The first suburbs were built within easy distance of the city and connected by commuter trains.  But then the car came hiccuping off the assembly line and made the possibilities endless.

Then in the 1950s, Eisenhower built up our concrete infrastructure, not to help us go on Kerouac-esque odysseys of discovery but to make sure we could get the military where we might need them in case of an invasion and evacuate our cities in case of nuclear war.  No invasion, no nuclear war and lots of highway infrastructure = suburban sprawl and big box stores.

And that's the American way.  Public transit is for poor people.  Public transit is communist.  Socialist.  I am an American.  I work hard.  I buy my own car.  I pay my own way.  Somehow I forget how much public money is used to keep the roads upon which I'm exerting my libertarian independence in useable form.

Public transit is also dangerous.  A target for terrorists.  A killer.  Of course, in Japan, you are more likely to die from your pajamas catching fire than you are in a train crash.

I live in Kansas City.  A city completely enamored with the automobile.  Though my neighborhood is an early suburb, built with trolley and streetcar access to downtown, all of those tracks are gone.  One is now a well-loved jogging path.  A MAX bus runs on the street next to the jogging path but there is no rail.  And those who advocate rail are immediately labeled as crackpot sociopaths.

But Kansas City doesn't have gridlock.  So there's no reason to change.  So we won't change.

In Bogota (my favorite chapter of the book) the mayor championed public good over private interest.  He restructured Bogota to "show that a cyclist on a thirty-dollar bike was equally as important as a citizen in a thirty-thousand dollar car.  We were saying, 'You, with your big cars and fancy jewels, we think you are stupid, we think you are animals.  What we respect is music and sports and libraries.  For us, the neighborhood hero was the young man who played sports and read books and rode around on an old bike.'"

And it worked.  For the most part.  Until he was ousted from office.  But he plans to run again and continue molding the trend.

I wish we had a visionary like that in Kansas City.  I don't take transit.  I could take a bus.  But it's so much easier to get in my car and drive.  So I do.  And until transit becomes more than an indicator of poverty or hipster moral superiority, nothing will change.

"Every time you choose to drive you are, in a tiny way, opting out of, and thus diminishing, the public realm.  And that, finally, is the problem with suburbs and freeways.  In order to gain spurious freedom, which is in fact just increased mobility, millions of people turn their backs on civility--not just politeness, but also the process of civilization building, in which cities play such a crucial role.  Sprawl may end in cul-de-sacs and foreclosures, but it begins every time you slam a car door on the world."

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19 January 2013

Book Review: The Beauty and the Sorrow

The Beauty And The SorrowThe Beauty And The Sorrow by Peter Englund

The whole concept of this book intrigues me;  take twenty regular people and tell the story of the war through their eyes.  Englund has done his homework; I expected swaths of pull-quotes from their letters.  Instead, he takes source material to sketch a scene and uses direct quotes from their letters sparingly.  Mostly, this works beautifully.  But sometimes, Englund's prose is obtuse and clunky and one wishes for the original voice.  For example;

"He is a keen churchgoer and the eldest of six brothers and sisters, the two youngest of whom--the twin girls Zelma and Vida--he is particularly fond of and pays a lot of attention."

I spent too many minutes trying to rewrite that sentence in my head.  I couldn't do it so then I had to back up and rewrite the whole paragraph.  One could argue that I got distracted by a minor element of poor grammar, which I should have glossed over for the sake of the beautiful story Englund was telling.  But this exact exercise happened to me often enough that I fear the depth of its ability to enlighten me was compromised.

But despite its tedious moments and the difficulty I had as a reader keeping track of who was who, Englund's concept, for the most part, worked.  Making the war real.  "The war for them is less an event to be followed than a condition to be endured."

This war made people into statistics.  This war took away basic human dignity.  This war devalued human life.  When the German seaman uses his offshore leave to go see Lohengrin he writes, "It's a pity I can't get to more occasions like this.  They make you feel like a human being rather than just a worthless beast of burden."

"And the savage in you makes you adore it with its squalor and wastefulness and danger and strife and glorious noise.  You feel that, after all, this is what men were intended for rather than to sit in easy chairs with a cigarette and whiskey, the evening paper or the best-seller, and to pretend that such a veneer means civilization and that there is no barbarian behind your starched and studded shirt front."  American Army field surgeon Harvey Cushing after witnessing shells land at the front.

Englund writes, "An ancient truth is making itself manifest again--the truth that sooner or later wars become uncontrollable and counter-productive because men and societies will tend to sacrifice everything in their blind drive to be victorious."  Peace becomes a dirty word.  Anything less than victory would mean that "all the sufferings and losses have been in vain."  So the war grinds on, causing more suffering, more loss.

"For about a fortnight they have watched battalion after battalion dispatched towards the top of Monte Ortigara and each time they have also watched the result;  first to come are the stretcher-beares with the wounded and the mules with the dead, then--after a few hours or a few days--what remains of the battalion trudges past.  That is how it works, such are the mechanics of it.  Battalions are sent into the mill of artillery fire and remain there being ground mercilessly down until they have lost the majority of their men.  Then they are replaced by new battalions, which stay until they have lost the majority of their men.  Then they are replaced by new battalions, which stay until they have lost the majority of their men.  And so on."

This war sent humans into a roiling vortex of violence that functionally achieved nothing at all.

One of the people Englund follows reads as voraciously as he can throughout the war, "...in the slightly touching way of bookish people, who always try to read their way to an understanding of the great and incomprehensible events that are affecting them..."

The inherent and never-ending conflicts--social democracy, constitutional monarchy, individual freedoms, the class system--all of this is crystallized during the war.

"The war has developed into something that few people foresaw and even fewer desired, and the class system is one of the things that has been unmasked: where decades of socialist and anarchist propaganda failed to lay bare the lies, hypocrisy and paradoxes of the old order, a couple of years of war have succeeded in doing so."

The war to end all wars, followed by the peace to end all peace.  Followed by the rise of the Nazis.

Englund ends his book with a quote from another regular person; a German footsoldier during the war; the young man is frustrated by the terms of the peace and the fall of German power and might.  He writes, "One would have had to be a simpleton--or a liar and criminal--to hope for mercy from the enemy.  My hatred grew during these nights, my hatred for those responsible for this evil deed.  During the days that followed, I recognised what my mission was to be.  I decided to become a politician."

The soldier's name was Adolf Hitler.

Other random thoughts: Paolo Monelli is a poet with a sense of language and beauty that tells the war's story in a most effective and heart-wrenching way.

Best Random Trivia Item Learned:  Tsingtao, in China, used to be a German colony.  No wonder they make great beer.

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13 January 2013

Book Review: Thieves of Manhattan

The Thieves of ManhattanThe Thieves of Manhattan by Adam Langer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So, hmmm.  Hip, sly, outrageous, ridiculous, meta, snarky, fake memoir which lampoons memoirs professing to be real, the publishing industry, authors, liars, truth-tellers, the creation of literature and truth itself.

For the first 60 pages or so, I kept dogearing pages with words that made no sense to me;  "she'd been smoking vonneguts" "pedestrians clutching black poppinses" "wearing a gatsby" "covering my portnoy"

Then, while the narrator, Ian, is reading the book A Thief in Manhattan, he says "What I liked most were Roth's knowing literary references ... Throughout, Roth employed a literary sort of slang; he called an overcoat a "gogol," a smile a "cheshire," and an umbrella a "poppins."  He called trains "highsmiths," because they appeared so often in Patricia Highsmith's thrillers, and referred to money as "daisies," since in The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald describes Daisy Buchanan's voice as being "full of money."  At the end of Roth's manuscript, he included a glossary of literary terms ..."

On a whim, I turned to the back of Langer's book.  Glossary of terms.

And at some point, Ian's manuscript is too long.  He must cut it down to 250 pages.  The Thieves of Manhattan, in it's paperback published form, runs 253 pages.

And while it got a little too Da Vinci Code in the end (perhaps purposefully so?) I enjoyed it immensely and read it in one night.

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04 January 2013

Book Review: The News Where You Are

The News Where You AreThe News Where You Are by Catherine O'Flynn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The whole point of the book can be summed up in the following paragraph;

"He thought of Michael Church growing more and more isolated, occupying a progressively smaller space in the universe until he finally vanished altogether.  It reminded him of the TV set they'd had at home when he was growing up.  When you turned it off, the image would rapidly shrink down to a small white dot and then, after an unguessable interval of time, disappear.  He knew, though, that the programs were carrying on somewhere;  he could just no longer see them."

Our society is ageist; our old buildings, our old people.  We dismiss them.  We allow them to become irrelevant.  We make them irrelevant.  The end.

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Book Review: Unbroken

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and RedemptionUnbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I think back to the fact that the bulk of the book took place in the middle of the ocean and the rest of the book catalogued torture in a Japanese prison camp, it's amazing I liked this book at all.

But how reliable are these details?  How true is this story?  HIllenbrand wrote this book some 50 years after the story happened.  I cannot remember, with detail, what happened last week.  I suppose largely important, fully negative memories tend to stick but as an accurate story, I questioned much of this book.  As a fable-esque recollection of the horrors of war, I was all in.  And what is history and autobiography, really, but fable and myth?  It's much like taking Anne Frank's diary as the definitive tome of the Holocaust.  I was in a meeting with a Holocaust education professional once who said, "Anne Frank had it easy."  What?  But, yes.  Yes.  Perhaps she did.  Certainly in comparison to the folks who were living in holes with rats, Anne was pampered.  But compared to our higher expectations of the order of human society...well, she didn't.  And besides that, the people in the holes with the rats didn't have pen and paper and didn't leave a primary source.  Anne's story is the story we have; edited and managed but still mostly true.  And it's a story that gives us a jumping off point to explore the rest of history through documents that may, or may not, be more reliable.  Who knows?  There is no truth.  But there are lessons to learn from partial truths, exaggerated stories or migrating memories.  Fable and myth.  Designed to teach us how to be better contributors to the human race.

As a side note, Zamperini's redemption through the preaching of Billy Graham put a bad taste in my mouth. We, as a society, train men to be killing machines and then we plug them back into polite society, cuff them on the shoulder and say, "Thanks.  And good luck."  PTSD wasn't even a term until the last 20 years or so.  To portray, accurately or not, Zamperini's "cure" through the words of a godly sage, has the unintended effect of making the answer seem easy.  For many the answer was not that easy.  For many, the answer remains elusive.

But, in all, eminently readable.  But take with a grain of salt.

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