Saturday, December 26, 2009

Book Thirty-Two: The Storm by Frederick Buechner

It takes a lot of nerve to update Shakespeare and I'm sure there have been failed attempts in the past. But Frederick Buechner takes it one step further and not only updates The Tempest, but adds a Christian element to it as well. Well, what you do you expect from a Presbyterian minister who is as comfortable with fiction as he is theology and has a sense of humor to boot.

The Storm uses Shakespeare's play as the basis, but Buechner avoids trying to recreate the scenario item by item. Considering the fantastical nature of much of the play, this is a good idea and someone unfamiliar with Shakespeare could read the book, find an interesting story, and never the connection make (or need). [Anyone wishing for a quick refresher on The Tempest could read the BBC's humorous, tabloid, 60-second version.]

Buechner's story centers around Kenzie (Prospero) who has left New York in disgrace after fathering a child with a young woman he should have been caring for (this episode alone could keep us talking for some time). His brother, Dalton (Antonio), in an effort at clarity exposes and shames not only Kenzie, but the young woman who gave birth to daughter named Bree (Miranda). It is the shame for the mother that Kenzie cannot forgive his brother. Eventually Kenzie finds himself living on an island after marrying Willow (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) who shares the house with her 40-something, wind surfing Averill (Ariel) and served by Clavert (Caliban). Dalton is called to the island by Miss Sickert (Sycorax), who owns the island and oversees much of what happens. He calls on his semi-estranged stepson, Nandy (Ferdinand), to accompany him.

Thus with all the characters assembled we have simply the action to take place, and it does. Perhaps because we know the ending already Buechner rushes this section along to quickly. It is not often I wish for a book to be longer, but the meeting of the brothers and the subsequent tempest could have been expanded. The strength of the book lies in the outset where Kenzie's wandering life as an author is pulled into focus as he begins to work with the homeless. He throws himself into this new understanding of life, even losing friends and a wife with his commitment, until finally he becomes to close to what he is learning about.

Buechner is a Christian, but this no "Jesus-in-a-box" type story. Kenzie's religious leanings are mystical rather than dogmatic, and much of what he believes is inspired by the saints he studied in writing one of his books. His new life is clearly that of a conversion, although he himself does not understand it. But he senses a greater power when describing his time in the "rich people's chapel" he notes that "[e]ven on the warmest, most breathless Sundays he sometimes felt a stirring of cool air about his nostrils. He could not make it happen although he had tried...He was not prepared to say where it came from or to what purpose, but what he took it to mean was that the weather of the world is as distinct from true weather as the sultry stillness is from the coming storm." This Prospero is no sorcerer, but he is tied into something more powerful than he is. More importantly, in a life seeking forgiveness he realizes he is already forgiven and has the power to forgive others, namely his brother. This is certainly an interpretation Shakespeare could live with.

If you are not familiar with Buechner's work he is certainly worth the effort. I've read some of his novels, and his work has been a finalist for Pulitzer and the National Book Award, so he gets the critical acclaim as well. His output is varied, but visiting the Buechner Institute is as good of starting place as any. I've read more than once and given more than once one of his non-fiction works, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who's Who, which is hilarious, insightful, and thoughtful all at once. In looking into his life a bit lately I found that he studied at Union Theological Seminary with one of the most influential theologians in my life, Paul Tillich. This helps explains Buechner's confidence in God's message that he does not need to have an author screaming conversion every other page -- as Prospero would certainly know, God is not dependent on humanity.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
The Tempest, 4. 1

Shakespearian Updates to Recommend?

After reading this I'm curious about what other updates of Shakespeare's work people out there have read and enjoyed. Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres is a personal favorite. I read the book when it first came out and was into it quite a ways when suddenly I realized it was King Lear, one of my favorite plays. Let me know what other ones are out there and we'll all have a list to pursue.

Reading Challenges
It was Christmas just a few days ago (Merry Christmas!) so things were busy. I again chose well since The Storm  is a short book (199 pages) and I knew Buechner was a good writer. I actually read this in a few sittings -- it was tougher getting the time to sit down and write this!

Up Next
Rooftops of Tehran by Mahbod Seraji, and actually I'm a bit apprehensive. It is a coming of age story set in Iran during the 1973 revolution, and I'm hoping to get more out of the Iran part of things then a romantic story. Some reviewers warn men not to be scared off by the pinkish cover withe the rose at the forefront, so I'm taking their word that my macho sensibilities will not be offended.

Happy reading!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Book Thirty-One: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Books like this are really the reason I started this one book a week challenge; a highly acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize winning collection of stories which has spent far too long sitting unread on my bookshelf. So with a busy week and the need for good reading I decided to grab something I should have read long ago. I wish I had since I now realize I've been missing a great writer.

Lahiri's first publication received almost too much success, but in reading this collection one can see what all the excitement is about. Lahiri examines the gulf for Indian/Bengali immigrants struggling to understand their new country (the U.S.), maintain a relationship with their place of birth or ancestral home, and find their place in life. What she is exploring is hardly new territory. In fact, she ends the collection with the narrator saying, "I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home and certainly I am not the first...As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination."

Precisely in this "ordinariness" is where Lahiri manages to create a range of outstanding stories. There is simply not a weak link in the collection, although they refuse to follow any formulaic route. The title story actually takes place in India, but the immigrants in question are Indians who now live in the U.S. coming to the country as tourists. Lahiri sketches the characters quickly, but just when you think a flat, stereotypical character has emerged she shows a new depth to the person. Mr. Kapasi is driver taking them to their tourist destination, but he also makes money as an interpreter for a doctor (e.g. interpreter of maladies). It is this fact which awakens the mother/wife of the family he is taking along and she seeks to share her maladies in desperate search for a cure. Of course, her maladies are not physical, but symptomatic of the society in which she now resides.

But Lahiri is not by any means anti-American society -- it exists in so much as her characters interact with it. While it may give them freedoms that Indian society has not offered, we see that in the end it is up to the people to decide how that society will influence them. Some retreat into traditional lifestyles in which they find comfort, but little interaction. Others take to the new society and their new life reflects these choices.

In "This Blessed House" we see the conflicts with society in a humorous story surrounding the Indian owners of a house finding Christian artifacts in all parts of their house. The previous owners have left many small items behind which the wife finds fascinating and displays on their mantel, much to the surprise of her husband. But when a statue of Mary shows up when raking leaves, her insistence on displaying it goes against his concern of being thought Christian. A compromise is reached, but when they host a house warming party the husband realizes that his wife is also something that requires a new look as he begins to see her through the eyes of others.

No story is more moving than "A Temporary Matter" in which a couple deals with the loss of a stillborn son. As they attempt to move on with their lives they find themselves incapable of being honest with one another until a temporary evening blackout gives them the opportunity to face the truth. It is a touching story which completely skirts sentimentality and instead shows the pain such a loss brings to a young couple.

Overall the collection is outstanding for several reasons. Not only does Lahiri present the immigrant experience in a variety of interesting ways, she does so with respect to all the cultures involved. Her stories are about people and how life impacts them and how they respond, but she sees people as the driving force. In addition, the stories are incredibly well written without the clunky dialogue or plot shifts so common in first attempts.

The book won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize and since then Lahiri has published two novels, "The Namesake" (which was made into a movie) and "The Unaccustomed Earth" in 2008. She was born in London but raised in the U.S. and has dealt with many of the issues covered, although certainly not all given the range. You can read more about her at Jhumpa Lahiri's Website. A better bio and interesting story of her name is at The Asian Heroes Project.

Also, the Bengali culture is really at the heart of the collection. I will not claim to be familiar with the whole history here, so I visited the always reliable (?) Wikipedia and offer this summary (and the link to the site):  

Bengal (Bengali: বঙ্গ Bôngo, বাংলা Bangla, বঙ্গদেশ Bôngodesh or বাংলাদেশ Bangladesh), is a historical and geographical region in the northeast region of the Indian Subcontinent. Today it is mainly divided between the sovereign state of the People's Republic of Bangladesh (previously East Bengal / East Pakistan) and West Bengal in India, although some regions of the previous kingdoms of Bengal (during local monarchical regimes and British rule) are now part of the neighboring Indian states of Bihar, Assam, Tripura and Orissa. The majority of Bengal is inhabited by Bengali people (বাঙালি Bangali) who speak the Bengali language (বাংলা Bangla).

Reading Challenges

Even though I knew this would be a tough week, this was a tough week! I had 17 research papers to grade, one meeting late at night, and just the hectic pace of pre-Christmas issues to address. Lately I've been finishing books midweek and writing a day or two ahead of time, but here I sit at 11:14pm finally finishing my blog. I did start a minor expansion this week by including some info/links on the author and other information I've found interesting. I usually look at this information anyway so I should be better about sharing it.

Coming Up
At the moment, I'm not sure. I could not find the version of The Christmas Carol I wanted and am now just thinking of grabbing another book off the bookshelf. Anne Tyler needs to make it on this blog sometime since I do not think she gets the critical acclaim she should, but I'm not sure where I will end up. It will be a surprise -- how exciting! 

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Book Thirty: Assembling Georgia by Beth Carpel

Moving back into the world of book reviews this week I approached this novel with a bit of skepticism. A debut novel with little publicity swirling around it and clearly published by a small publisher (self publisher?) with little publicity. Like the big companies know what they are doing?

Beth Carpel's debut novel reminds us of what so many authors today seem to lack -- the gift of storytelling. Why is literary fiction afraid of the mysteries we encounter in life, instead engaging in the backward recitation of a plot we later piece together. Few writers can handle that style with success. Carpel apparently missed the class on how a novel is supposed to work and instead turned out a novel which runs as smoothly as the motorcycle around which the story centers.

Like the motorcycle, this book has some crashes and parts which need to be repaired, but overall Carpel has turned about a well-oiled story. Georgia is the central character and her life of underachievement is interrupted by the weekly arrival of motorcycle parts to her home. With no clue as to who is sending her the parts or why, Georgia's final package includes an instruction manual and the next step is obvious. Not a mechanically inclined person (or so she thinks) she gets the help of her Uncle Emery, one of more interesting characters to show up in a novel in recent memory. Emery lives up north in the woods of Minnesota digesting a range of books and fixing things up in return for what he needs. He takes Georgia in and together they work on building the motorcycle and rebuilding Georgia's life, or as Carpel puts it "Assembling Georgia."

Carpel holds the mystery of who sent the parts hidden for quite some time, although in the end the discovery is as anti-climatic as life usually is -- some poetic license here would be allowed. Along the way we meet Georgia's good friend Corrine, which shows that level of friendship in which the relationship is always strong no matter what the distance between times connecting with each other may be. A childhood acquaintance, Frank, also gets a starring role as we get caught up on his past troubles and current struggles, all of which are encased in a likable man who seems to be as adrift as Georgia.

Once the bike is built Georgia does the quintessential road trip, giving her time to learn more about herself than she realized she was missing. Characters come in and out and Carpel manages to create strong characters with a few deft strokes. Once the ride is done she is again faced with life, but we now see a woman who is ready for future challenges. The readiness is good as Carpel is not done throwing challenges at her, but at the risk of spoiling the plot we leave that to the reader.

Carpel is not subtle about her intentions, and whether that is the result of a first novel writer trying to make a point or simply an honest writer, the result is a story which invites the reader along rather than daring them to continue. In fact, the unanswered questions in this novel keep the reader moving quickly since the element of suspense works well. We want to know how Georgia turns out. We want to know who sent the motorcycle. We want to know what demons Frank is facing but will not share with anyone. Carpel tells a good story and we keep wanting the story to go on. She recognizes this by giving us an epilogue, which fast forwards us seven years, but she could have left it out because we knew where her characters were going.

Even when the story stutters, as with some faltering dialogue and a few too many touching moments, the result is still endearing in its open attempt to draw the reader in to another person's life. Carpel's characters are real and easy for readers to relate to. They are complex people who make good decisions and bad decisions and sometimes no decisions at all. At times you want to yell at them, and at other times you want to be on the back of their motorcycle. There are no angels or demons here, just ordinary people not only making the best of what life offers them, but learning to create something when they do not like what they have been handed. Call it a coming of age story for the middle aged -- or for people of any age who need renewal. How many novels can you say that about?

Carpel's website is worth checking out, especially after reading the book since she gives the photo version of Georgia's motorcycle trip.

Reading Challenges
I really thought his book was going to be a challenge, but it was a fast and enjoyable read. Whenever I look forward to getting some time to read I know I'm on the right track. Now next week...

Coming Up
I wanted to get in the Christmas spirit with A Christmas Carol, but cannot find the edition I have that I really want to read. Plus, I get to read 17 research papers in the next week. Yikes! I forgot about that challenge when coming up with this book a week idea. This could be tough! But I'm choosing a shorter book which has just a bit of praise (including a Pulitzer), Jhumpa Lahiri's "Interpreter of Maladies" -- a collection of short stories. I already read and really liked the first story so it should all work out.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Book Tweny-Nine: A Mercy by Toni Morrison and 29(b) A Village Life by Louise Gluck

Toni Morrison has already cemented her place in the literary world (the Nobel prize helps) and although not a prolific writer, she rarely misses. Beloved has to rank as one of best novels of the 20th century and makes my all time short list. It is the type of book which reminds you of the power of a story to physically wear you down -- reading that novel is an interactive experience.

A Mercy, Morrison's ninth and latest novel, is a short work (167 pages) that reaffirms Morrison's gift for drawing a reader in and not allowing them to simply "read." While it lacks the final impact of Beloved, it is nevertheless a moving addition to her legacy. This time Morrison takes us back to America before the U.S., when slavery is beginning to take hold but the slaves may be African, Native American, or indentured white Europeans. It revolves around the family that Jacob Vaark creates. Vaark has inherited land he does not know how to farm, but he has an eye for making money. While refusing to be involved directly in the slave trading business, he does own a Native American slave, Lina, has taken on a girl rejected by others, Sorrow, and finally takes a girl as payment on a debt owned whose mother encourages the deal to improve her daughter's lot. With his wife Rebekka they form a small, unusual family. Vaark's boys all die in infancy, and his daughter is killed after being kicked by a horse.

Morrison's characters are strong. This is a book without saints and sinners, instead populated by humans with a tendency toward inconsistency -- in other words, normal people. Vaark is a compassionate owner with a strong moral sense of the indecency of slavery, but he ends up making money in the rum business which he knows is built on the muscle of slaves elsewhere. Lina is for some years his coworker and equal, but she is not above drowning a new born infant to save her from a mother she considers unfit. Florens, the young girl he takes on, is content with life until love enters and defeats her.

By creating such characters Morrison challenges the stereotypes of people and institutions with which we are too familiar. Lina, the Native American, knows she should understand the art of healing, but she was taken too soon from her mother. The quiet Rebekka comes from a life where family entertainment consisted of watching hangings and quarterings. These people are more complex than they appear. We learn about them slowly as Morrison forgoes the traditional narrative timeline and instead presents the tale in a Faulkneresque style of letting different characters tell the story and the use of flashbacks. Indeed, like Faulkner (I'm not sure Morrison will like being compared to a white, Southern male, but oh well) we see the story as the crumbling of paradise. It is not just a crumbling of Vaark's paradise (although the serpants engraved on the gate clearly mean something!) but of the soon-to-be-born United States.

Although not a central character, the story of Sorrow (who later gives herself a new name), turns out to offer the most hope in this dismal landscape. Once her story is told we understand her why she is given such a name, but it is she who is successful in reinventing herself and forging a new future. Florens seems to have the most chance of success, but when she does truly own herself she loses her own value. Lina appears as the strongest, but she is tied to the family she cannot be part of and lacks the courage to step away.

Morrison's greatest accomplishment here is perhaps creating a novel which has the potential to be only bleak, but she shows hope and goodness trying to get through. While in the end most of it fades, characters like Sorrow give the hope we need to make such stories bearable. It is not because we like make-believe stories; instead, it is because hope is part of our fabric and we are drawn to its reality in Morrison's work.

Louise Gluck's A Village Life will continue Gluck's leading role in American poetry, although it presents a more narrative style than her earlier work. We are presented with a unnamed, vaguely Mediterranean setting in an unclear time. In other words, the focus here is on the people.

The theme is familiar, but Gluck's presentation is unique. Here people, you and old, are faced with the reality that life moves forward whether they are ready or not. Indeed, our own choices may move the direction slightly, but finding our ultimate destination is clearly something we do not control. While we expect this in the older people facing death, Gluck knows that such experiences are not lost on the youth.

In "Noon" we find the tale of a "boy and girl" heading out into the meadow where they talk and picnic.

The rest--how two people can lie down on the blanket--
they know about it but they're not ready for it.
They know people who've done it, as a kind of game or trial--
then they say, no, wrong time, I think I'll just keep being a child.

But your body doesn't listen. It knows everything know,
it says you're not a child, you haven't been a child for a long time.

As the poems move on we see that many of these youth listen to their bodies and find their life now laid out for them. Some go away and come back, but they only suffer more.

To my mind, you're better off if you stay;
that way, dreams don't damage you.

This theme of longing for what we cannot have continues with age.

My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer
I begin to feel a new tenderness toward you, very raw and unfamiliar,
like what I remember of love when I was young--

While all this starts to sound like another aging poet becoming depressed over life, Gluck is not complaining. Instead, even as seen in the stanzas above she finds those moments in life to enjoy and sees change, no matter how much we resist it, as a normal part of life. These changes in our lives are inevitable, but not to be mourned. But she is intentional about recognizing where we are and living in the moment we have.

In "Walking at Night" we see an older woman who takes advantage of the fact that men no longer desire her to take her walks at night where "her eyes that used never to leave the ground/are free now to go where they like." She is rejuvenated by her age and situation and seeks nor needs any pity.

This joy is seen best in "Abundance," a glorious ode to spring which celebrates its newness while recognizing its transience. A boy touches a girl "so he walks home a man, with a man's hungers." The fruit ripens, "baskets and baskets from a single tree/so some rots every year/ and for a few weeks there's too much." The mice scamper through the harvest, the moon is full, "Nobody dies, nobody goes hungry" and the only sound is "the roar of the wheat." Gluck calls on us to revel in these moments without fearing what has preceded and what is to come.

Much of Gluck's intent is seen in three poems all entitled "Burning Leaves." As the leaves burn we are left with little, but the burning is important in creating room for the new. We are offered no promise of anything more.

How fast it all goes, how fast the smoke clears.
And where the pile of leaves was,
an emptiness that suddenly seems vast.

But while the fire is burning, it has life.

And then, for an hour or so, it's really animated
blazing away like something alive.
death making room for life

Gluck has created a volume that will benefit from repeated readings, and her easy, unhurried rhythm makes the return that much easier. She has the gift of all great poets in seeing the commonplace, and finding in it a celebration of life as it is.

Reading Challenges
Okay, this is starting to get old, but really this is not much of challenge with a good book. Morrison's book was a two night read and well spent time. I read Gluck's work over three nights and reread much of it as well.

Up Next
Back to a review book. Actually, I posted my review of Gluck on Blogcritics, but I (unfortunately) was using a library edition instead of a free book. Next week I'm reading "Assembling Georgia" by Beth Carpel, a debut novel.

Happy reading!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Book Twenty-Eight: Angry Candy by Harlan Ellison

As we are about to enter into the season of Advent, how appropriate that I read a book themed around -- death? But for Harlan Ellison, death is not always the end of the story. In fact, in many cases death is the start of the adventure. I had not heard of Ellison before a friend of mine not only recommended him, but put this book in my hands. Prolific would be the defining word for this author who has over 1,000 stories, novels, screenplays, etc. to his claim. He has penned episodes for The Twilight Zone  and Star Trek, and won numerous fantasy and science fiction awards.

This collection is, according to Ellison in his introduction, "the twenty-second or -third or -fifth book of stories I've done." With no disrespect to his fiction, the introduction is the best part of this collection. It opens with death of his friend, Emily (whose death also appears in a couple of the stories) and Ellison's "insensitive" but honest eulogy. Listed next to the text on two pages are 44 deaths which touched him in a two-year period. In some cases they were close friends and in other cases acquaintances, but the overwhelming amount of death clearly shook the hardened writer. He is angry about the deaths and the pain the losses create and this book is his attempt to come to grips with what he has experienced.

Which brings us to the last story, "The Function of Dream Sleep," in which the main character momentarily sees a mouth with teeth open near his stomach. When he goes to get help he eventually ends up with a group of people who take on the pain of others, but the character's pain is so great he actually kills several of them. Where does his pain come from? The loss of friends (including an Emily) which he has not been able to deal with in a positive way. He eventually seeks out a guru type figure who informs him the pain is from the dead whom he will not let go. He is told to "Let the mouth open...let the wind of the soul pass through, and take emptiness as a release." We end the book with "when he cried for them, he was, at last, able to say goodbye." The process is complete and Ellison seems to have worked through his anger and let his friends go.

The stories in between the introduction and final story hit a range of topics, times, and creatures, but they all deal with death. The problem with prolific writers is usually that the quality ranges as well, and Ellison is no exception. Some of these are forgettable ("Escapegoat") and Ellison is prone to the last sentence surprise ending, like the ending of some bad jokes. But when he hits a story well it is well worth the effort. "Laugh Track" is a creatively written story in which a man follows his deceased Aunt through the years as her laugh shows up on laugh tracks over the decades. The twist is that the laugh track keeps her alive and he is able to connect with her, setting her off in a new direction. The story not only has a interesting premise, but shows a sense of humor as well -- a welcome diversion in this heavy book.

The best story is the opening "Paladin of the Lost Hour," in which human temptation is all that holds us back from chaos as one person holds the key to a lost hour in time. Should the hour be used for personal reasons the time will disappear and the world will disappear. Ellison manages to make the holder of time both human and other worldly as he finds a new person to protect time.

One of the more disturbing, yet most powerful, stories is "Broken Glass" in which a woman combats a rapist who enters her mind. Trapped on a bus she knows one of the men on the bus has entered her mind and raped her, but she does not know which person it is and he continues to taunt her. In the end she realizes she must use her mind to combat him. "On the Slab" is another standout in which a creature on display shows it is not yet dead, but there are those who want him that way. The "owner" goes from seeing this as a money-making venture to true compassion for the creature, and the relationship is touching.

Of the seventeen short stories here a good editor could have dropped eight of them to make this a stronger book, but I get the impression that at this stage in his career Ellison calls his own shots.  There are a couple of Ellison "essential" collections on his 35th and 50th writing anniversaries, which may be a better place start. But Ellison is definitely a writer who should drop into most people's reading lists at some point.

He has also led a lively existence full of controversy, wives, and general mayham which you can read more about at Wikipedia if interested.

Reading Challenges
Thanksgiving week actually means a slower week for me so this worked out well. The book is not short and some of the stories dragged (and tired me out), but the good stories flew by and the book ends with some strong pieces. Even managed to grade 2/3 of some papers I needed to get out of the way and read some other reading blogs on one night.

Up Next
Two books this week A Mercy by Toni Morrison. Beloved ranks as one of my all time favorite books and this books somehow ties into that and is getting strong reviews. I'm also going to get in a new collection of poetry from Louise Gluck.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Book Twenty-Seven: Love in Infant Monkey by Lydia Millet (plus a bonus Christmas CD recommendation)

Lydia Millet has received a lot of praise for her work and is seen by many as one of the best writer's in the U.S. Stepping into her world for the first time with her collection of stories, Love in Infant Monkeys, shows a writer willing to take risks in her material. The collection revolves around animals, be they pets, circus elephants, or even the lions from the movie Born Free. Millet further layers the collection with real life celebrities or historical figures so in the course of the book we see David Hasselhoff, hear the musings of Madonna, learn of the religious leanings of Thomas Edison, and witness a confession from former President Jimmy Carter -- and there are more. Many of the stories are based on true stories of animals with famous people, although Millett takes artistic license and uses them as springboards.

The result is a strong, if uneven, collection with the famous names at times proving to be a distraction and at other times an annoyance. The book opens with Madonna pondering a range of ideas as she looks over a dying pheasant she has shot in "Sexing the Pheasant." The animal here serves as a catalyst for her thoughts, but the focus is on Madonna and her musings on celebrity life, her husband's friends, and her attempts to conquer English phrases. Madonna is such an easy target to make fun of that she is hardly worth the effort; this story could be written by some talented undergrads with a sense of humor.

Such entries are frustrating when you see Millet's skills in a story such as "Sir Henry," a moving tale of a dog walker who is forced beyond his dog world when he suddenly recognizes humanity which rises to the level of, well,  dogs. Sir Henry, a dachshund, belongs to a famous performer, but this means nothing to the dogwalker. He likes the dog because of the dog itself, not any association. He walks the dog with "Blackie," who belongs to a dying violinist who asks the walker to take the dog after he dies, which by the violinist's own admission will be soon. The request goes against the walker's own protocol, but he is moved enough to consider it and begins to see the violinist and his caretaker in a new light. We do not hear the final decision, but it is the questioning which is enlightening. Toward the end of the story Millet reveals that Sir Henry's absent owner is David Hasselhoff, who bestows some glancing attention on the dog when he accidentally meets up with the walker in the park. The walker hears the excited reactions of those around him, but is clearly not moved by the connection. The question is, why throw this diversion in what is an otherwise strong story. Millet shifts the reader's attention in a way the dog walker himself escapes, and the rationale is not clear.

Millet does better with less "celebrity" people such as Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. Although not as well known today, Tesla was a influential inventor who counts the radio among his creations. Millet focuses on his death as debt laden scientist living out his life in the Hotel New Yorker. Tesla develops a moving relationship with one of the maids, and the story is told from the viewpoint of another maid who knew both of them. In the story Tesla is devoted to pigeons who share his apartment, causing the maids to spend extra time with the man. Millet's building of the relationship is as light and touching as the relationship itself. That Tesla was famous does not impact the story significantly. Instead of celebrity watching we simply see humans at their best as they try to help one another. Millet has a gift for finding emphasizing the human emotion without cheapening it, in part because the animals serve as a foil to the human characters (and at times this is reversed).

Humor is also an important part of the collection, and is best seen in "Jimmy Carter's Rabbit," which takes on Carter's famous oar defense when a rabbit swam toward his boat at one point during his presidency. As a former President, Carter pays a surprise visit on a childhood friend who is now a psychologist. As children they were involved in an incident which caused the boy and his family to leave the town, and Carter has come to offer a belated apology. The humor comes as the psychologist tries to figure out Carter's real reason for visiting in what is a clearly an attempt not to focus on the incident Carter wants to discuss. A similar sense of avoiding reality shows up in "The Lady and the Dragon" where a billionaire Indonesian businessman purchases a Komodo dragon who had bitten Sharon Stone's husband at a zoo. The businessman hopes to use the animal to meet Stone, with whom he is obsessed, and when one of his employees cannot contact the real one he instead hires a sexually willing substitute. 

The title story uses the real life experiments of Harold Harlow on monkeys as its basis. While Harlow is going against his colleagues in the 1950s and calling for mothers to be more loving, he gets his theories by isolating and thus torturing monkeys. While he claims no love for the monkeys, he pushes away his nightmares about the animals by drinking too much. With his own wife dying at home he spends all his time on his work, and the story ends with the nightmare of a mother monkey screaming for her baby. "He knew the feeling of loss that would last till she died."

Overall we can see Millet using the animals as a way for us to see ourselves differently. She shows a respect for animals most writers do not have by showing they are worthy of our attention as they are. In addition, as Millet any pet owner knows, animals often show us more about ourselves than we are comfortable knowing.

Reading Challenges
Tough motivational week! This is a short book so I though it would be an easy week, but you can see that although I liked the book I was not running to it every night. Perhaps it was post-six month anniversary depression? I also had a very busy week at work and was a bit exhausted in the evening, not to mention working two of the nights. So this is a week I read because I had to since I could have easily gone comatose in front of some movie (any movie) on t.v. But hey, who said this is all supposed to be easy?

Next Up
Harlan Ellison's Angry Candy. This came as a recommendation from a friend who thought I could use a bit of weirdness in life. He noted that Ellison wrote some episodes for the Twilight Zone and Star Trek, and promised a unique read. I asked my oldest son about him and he said the same things, so the weirdness was confirmed. I read the introduction standing up because what I thought would be a quick glance turned into a ten-page read. I've almost finished the first story and really like it, although the ending promises to be crucial.

CD Review: Hot Club of San Francisco's Cool Yule
I wrote this review for Blogcritics and thought I would include it for fun. Hot Club of San Francisco appeared on my artists series last year and were great! This CD is a fun listen and highly recommended.
Another Christmas recording? As certain as the rising of the Christmas tree is the annual release of a plethora of Christmas recordings from a variety of artists and genres. Classical guitar for Christmas? No problem. An accordion fan? Relax to Rudolph on the squeezebox. "Fill in the name" pop star doing the standards? Several available for your choosing. So here comes the Hot Club of San Francisco to add some gypsy jazz from the smoke filled bars of ...uh...San Francisco to the mix?

But relax. Here is a Christmas recording offering something a bit different and worth listening to in the midst of the season. The Hot Club of San Francisco may not be a mainstream ensemble, but they are generally considered one of the best gypsy jazz groups in the U.S. For those not familiar with the genre, gypsy jazz is an acoustic guitar dominated format created by the incredible guitarist Django Reinhardt with violinist Stephane Grappelli in the smoky bars of Paris in the 1930s. The name of their group was the Quintette du Hot Club de France, and gypsy jazz groups often attach the "Hot Club" title to their own city. The quintet arrangement holds with the Hot Club of San Francisco which is led by guitarist Paul Mehling and violinist Evan Price, along with bassist Clint Baker, and rhythm guitarists Jeff Magidson and Jason Vanderford.

Mehling's gift as a leader has been to honor tradition while not being afraid of stretching the genre. In this recording he clearly moves beyond the normal library and also employs several guest singers and other ensembles to offer some new sounds. The result is a wide ranging, but solid, recording of a variety of Christmas classics. The quintet takes on Vince Guaraldi's "Skating" from "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and pairs it with the traditional "Carol of the Bells," and then soon jumps to "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

While gypsy jazz music is not afraid of the scorching solos, it also relishes the slow, quiet rhythms of the late night. At times it is a bit too slow ("The Christmas Song"), but when balanced with the moving Applachian song, "I Wonder As I Wander," you can hear the power of the slower sound.

Those looking for the upbeat sounds which have captivated so many listeners will not be disappointed. Mehling's arrangement of "Jingle Bells," here called "Djingle Bells" in homage to Reinhardt, is a gem which should be a new Christmas standard. Even "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" benefits from gypsy sound as it finds new life in this rendition. They even manage to add a great deal of life to the difficult to like traditional song, "March of the Toys." These songs feature the Hot Club of San Francisco without their guests and the comfort of the band is clear -- they have a lot of musical fun with one another which shows a camaraderie extending beyond the music. They also extend the tradition with the best over-seven-minute version of "Auld Lang Syne" you may ever hear.

That this CD is successful comes as no surprise since the basis is five excellent musicians. Mehling is a gifted guitarist with an ear for the soulful and the skill to pull off some blistering solos bound to make most guitarists give up in frustration. Price is equally talented as a violinist and can either blend in the background or drive a song forward at will. But gypsy jazz also needs a strong rhythm section, especially since it does not include any drums. The percussive and bass sounds are amply handled by Baker, Magidson, and Vanderford.

So in the midst of the holiday chaos grab this CD to get a respite from the rush. Or if you know someone with an openness to some unique musical sounds, you have a stocking stuffer at hand. You are not likely to find this is mainstream CD outlets, but it is worth the internet search.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Book 26: Love Begins in Winter by Simon Van Booy (and 26A-C: Three Christmas Graphic Novels)

Week 26. Half way to my goal! Of course you've already read my comments on this, but if not, see above! This week's main book reminds me of why I'm doing this. The excitement of finding a new writer which impacts your world view is rare, but worth the wait.

Love Begins in Winter is a collection of five short stories written around the theme of love. Yes, love. In today's cynical world it is hard to find many talented writers who can celebrate love without making it sound like a bad Hallmark card. Van Booy not only succeeds, he excels. These are exquisitely written stories which show us a writer with the ability to see the many shades of love through a variety of fully drawn characters with a variety of experiences.

The title story is a short masterpiece of writing. We meet a world famous musician who is cut off from the world and people as he remembers the loss of a young companion. We are also introduced to a woman who lost a beloved brother at a young age and has struggled with companionship since then. If you hope for love at first sight, you find it in this story in a way which is remarkably above any lustful look. Instead, kindred souls recognize one another and begin what is the process of loving. Van Booy knows love can happen quickly, but even a loving relationship takes time to develop. This does not give away as much of the plot as it sounds since the story's constant progress is its plot.

"Tiger Tiger" shows the surprising places and way love appears, even across generations. A young doctor and her boyfriend see the dissolution of his parent's marriage as they work on their own relationship. When she receives a book her boyfriend's family doctor had written years before she passes on reading it, but when she looks over it a few years later she realizes he had written about children with an insight and love not expected from a single man. In other words, love shows up in unexpected ways.

"The Missing Statues" is a beautiful short story about how the power of love from years before can move a young man to tears with a simple reminder. Van Booy explores the many ways love appears, and in this story we see the simple caring of the stranger as a gift of love. Love's intensity is seen most clearly in "The Coming and Going of Strangers," where the love of a Romany Irish gypsy for a Canadian girl he does not know is beyond reason. The end provides a unique twist, and while Van Booy is never above the surprise ending, upon reflection they are never as surprising as they seem.

He ends the book with "The City of Windy Trees" in which years after the fact a man a one-night stand has given him a child. As he seeks out to reconnect, the power of love to transform a person is nearly overwhelming. And here we see one of Van Booy's clearest themes as his characters move from isolation to love, seeing the gift of love for what it is -- an act of grace beyond our control, but open to our reception.

The fact that Van Booy pulls all this off without becoming sentimental is a testament to his understanding the topic he addresses. He avoids the idea of love sick strangers staring longingly into one another's eyes. Instead, his characters often resist the idea of love until the reality hits them, which emphasizes the power love has in our lives. How wonderful to find a writer who intelligently celebrates what so many of us do experience even in a world seemingly devoid of love. 

Visit Simon Van Booy's Website

The publisher HarperCollins has created a new imprint called It Books to capture the popular culture audience, so it is no surprise they would release three graphic novel representations of three Christmas stories While their publicity claims these are Christmas classics, few will be familiar with L. Frank Baum's "A Kidnapped Santa Claus" which is adapted here by Alex Robinson. Baum, better known for the "Wizard of Oz," created a short fable about Santa who is kidnapped in flight by the demons Selfishness, Envy, Hatred, and Repentance. His work is carried on by four helpful assistants who know how to get the sleigh around, but mix up the presents the children are receiving. All could be lost, but never count out the magic of Christmas. Robinson adds a small love story and a great deal of humor to Baum's story, which seems perfectly suited for the graphic novel format. Robinson's stark black and white illustrations are either filled with details or clear in their simplicity, depending on how he wants to move the story forward. Of the three books released, Robinson's style will be the most familiar to those with a long history of comics with several panels on a page and balloon text throughout.  His adaptations to the story are an improvement and worth seeking out.

The truly classic "The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry gets a retelling by Joel Priddy. The story of a young couple selling their prized possessions to purchase each other a gift is well known to most through a variety of adaptations. Priddy also keeps the colors simple, mainly black and white although at times with a bluish tint, that is until Della's legendary hair is revealed. From a black and white bun comes a wave of orange which cannot be contained in even two pages and only disappears slowly as the hair goes back into hiding.  The impact is immediate and successful in its attempt to portray the beauty of the hair to the reader. He keeps very close to the story itself, omitting just a few lines which he can easily show, and he moves the story along at the leisurely pace in which it was written. Many pages contain no text as Priddy gives us a glimpse into the couple's private life which he plays out at times with full pages, at times with panels, and often a mix of arrangements. The book opens with several pages setting the scene without text as we see a store window version of the magi give way to the snow and our story; as the story ends he takes away from the domestic life and out into the stars as O. Henry's text puts the story in perspective. Priddy's adaptation rescues the story from the numerous sentimental versions in existence by allowing O. Henry's voice to be heard, and providing a vehicle which enhances the story.

Lilli Carre's adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Fir Tree" adds more than a splash of color to the trio. She also keeps very close to the text, which is too bad since the story of a short tree full of self pity sounds like just so much whinnying in today's world. Written over 160 years ago, Anderson's readers may have been more sympathetic than many of us to the "victim" format. But Carre takes Anderson at his word and her illustrations reflect his work with little comment. In fact, the book feels more like a picture book than a graphic novel as her simple, yet beautiful, illustrations reflect the text but stand alongside it rather than being involved. It is a lively book, but would benefit from having the illustrations frame the story.

If It Books is hoping to hit a more pop culture audience than this is the right method. The small books are created with the possibility of being stocking stuffers this holiday season, and they would be a good fit for many stockings.

Reading Challenges

As you can see I did plenty of reading and writing and actually finished all this by Friday. Van Booy's novel is a quick read because it is so good. Do not rush through his book because the writing is too good to miss, but be it still will not take long. I have a busier week coming up, but the collection I'm reading is short.

Next Up

Which brings me to the interestingly titled "Love in Infant Monkeys" by Lydia Millet. After this I'm caught up with my review books and I have a couple of others I want to read, but I'll get some new books ordered soon. 

Happy reading!

The Half Way Point

I'm well on my way to succeeding in my quest to read one book per week for a year -- half way there to be exact. The six months have not gone as expected, especially in my selection of reading material; overall, I could not be happier about that fact. Thanks to posting reviews on I have access to many free books to review and I've taken advantage of it to read books I would have otherwise passed by. As a result I've discovered some great new writers that I intend to follow for years to come. Originally I thought I would revisit a number of classics, and I've done some of that, but I like it when a project takes you in unexpected (yet pleasant) directions.

My reading has included fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and now even the world of graphic novels. I've always read a wide range of books, but I used to more selective because I read so little. With the promise of a new book every week I do not hesitate to reach beyond my normal interests -- I've been justly rewarded for the stretching.

As for the challenge of reading a book every week, well, it has become a matter of habit. A few times I've had to push myself to read, but I now find the reading to be my welcome escape from the world at the end of the day. My mind is challenged and refreshed, my views and opinions are reevaluated, and I still take joy in the simple pleasure of a well-crafted sentence (by others that is, I'm still hoping to write one such sentence someday).

My original reason for doing this was simply to read more than I have been the past few years. It is working! I'll have read as much in 2009 as I have the previous three years combined. I'm not sure whether I'm proud of how much reading I've done this year, or simply embarrassed by how little I've read in the past. And I'm aware that in the scheme of things one book a week is not a big deal for some. I see other bloggers doing similar things, and one of the links on my blog is to a woman reading Random House's 100 Best Books in a year -- and she teaches, has children, and started with Joyce's Ulysses! People like her are easy to hate. (Although she recently admitted she will not come close to her goal, so I feel better).  But I'm not too ashamed to share my attempts (thus this blog) at improving myself.

So for myself I've broken down the books I've read so far  by category. The books are for all off 2009, but since I started this in June I've read 29 books in 26 weeks.

1) The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
2) The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh
3) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
4) Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis
5) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
6) The Music Room by Namita Devidayal
7) American Woman by Susan Choi
8) A Person of Interest by Susan Choi
9) My Antonia by Willa Cather
10) The Road by Cormac McCarthy
11) The Known World by Edward P. Jones
12) The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
13) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith
14) Fear of the Dark by Walter Mosley
15) Pastoralia by George Saunders
16) A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar
17) Departing at Dawn: A Novel of Argentina's Dirty War by Gloris Lise
18) Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love by Lara Vapnyar

Poetry (this list is way too short -- but outstanding)

19) Losing Season by Jack Ridl
20) Strong Is Your Hold by Galway Kinnell
21) Selected Poems by Galway Kinnell

22) The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
23) Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
24) Lifehacker: 88 Tech Tricks to Turbocharge Your Day by Gina Trapani
25) The Fred Factor by Mark Sanborn
26) Better by Atul Gwande
27) Fordlandia by Greg Grandin
28) Unquenchable by Robert Glennon
29) Direct Red by Gabriel Weston
30) QBQ: The Question Behind the Question by John Miller
31) Operation Bit Back: Rod Coronado's War to Save American Wilderness by Dean Kuipers
32) America's Prophet: Moses and the Spirit of a Nation by Bruce Feiler
33) The Firefly Effect: Build Teams That Capture Creativity and Catapult Results by Kimberly Douglas
34) Let's Have Lunch Together by Marshall Howard
35) Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong: Reopening the Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles by Pierre Bayard
36) One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer

Graphic Novels
37) A Kidnapped Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum, Adapted by Alex Robinson
38) The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry, Adapted by Joel Priddy
39) The Fir Tree by Hans Christian Andersen, Adapted by Lilli Carre

...and the late addition of the latest fiction...
40) Love Begins in Winter by Simon Van Booy

And so I continue on. I'll get in A Christmas Carol before Christmas, although my plan of reading Lovecraft in preparation for Halloween was thwarted -- but he is really beyond the normal scare anyway. I still want to read Austen's other novels (again) and a few of the authors above also have books on my short list. In other words, I'm not going to get read what I "planned" in the next six months...and that is a good thing.

Thanks for your interest, support, and comments (well, if not on my blog but at least privately).


Sunday, November 8, 2009

Book Twenty-Five: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

...and 25(a) Let's Have Lunch Together by Marshall Howard
First, my main focus for the week. I've read Haddon's book before and found it interesting enough to build in to my college freshman writing class in which we talk about ways we approach life. Haddon's book allows us to have the discussion of what "limits" we may have in determining our outlook.

Told from the point of a view of a teenage boy with autism (perhaps Aspergers) this novel is a great way for us to recognize the predetermined ways in which we view the world. The idea that we are free to make whatever choices we want is an appealing thought (especially to first year college students), but indeed our choices are directed by physical, social, emotional, and even spiritual dilemmas. To steal from the speaker of the second book I'm discussing, he likes to quote "We are all prisoners in unlocked cells." In other words, we have created and have created for us our own boundaries and the only thing holding us back are our own decisions. Of course, this is only partially correct. As for Christopher (the main character in The Curious Incident) he has no choice in some of the walls which surround him. His creativity is in learning how to work within the limits he faces.

The story is a billed by Christopher himself as a murder-mystery, but since the murder is solved rather undramatically  half way through the book, this is clearly not the focus. The story starts with murder of a neighborhood dog and Christopher's decision to solve the mystery. In the process we learn that his mother has died, his father raises him alone, and he is brilliant in the area of mathematics. He always never mixes the food on his plate, hates the color yellow, and has decided that color of cars he sees in the morning determines what kind of day he will have. I could say more, but as the plot unfolds the surprises are interesting enough to leave to those of you who have not read it.
A fan of Sherlock Holmes stories (as am I -- see week eight!) he decides to pursue the case through Holmesian methods. In fact, the title of the book is inspired by the short story "The Silver Blaze" in which a prize racehorse is stolen. When Holmes remarks on the curious behavior of the dog in night time, Watson asks what is so curious -- he did not even bark. That, says Holmes, is what is curious. In other words, look at the obvious and question it and look for what is not there.  This makes sense since Christopher deals in logic and mathematics -- life is black and white to him. But of course, there is nothing logical about not liking yellow or letting car colors determine your day. In Christopher's mind this makes sense, but not to anyone else.

Once the murder mystery is resolved the focus becomes on Christopher's attempts to overcome his own limitations. Crossing a strange room is taxing for him, so he imagines a line leading across and then follows the way. Crowds overwhelm him so he waits them out until only a few people are around. He succeeds by handling each new situation one at a time and pulling back when he needs to think. In other words, he builds on his strengths and works around his walls.

The novel has garnered a lot of praise for a variety of reasons, including getting in the mind of an autistic person to see how the mind may work. Haddon worked with autistic children for some time so he may know more than most, but of course we need the autistic people to speak for the themselves (and this has been done). But that does not matter to Haddon because he does not see this as a work about autism. From his own blog: curious incident is not a book about asperger’s. it’s a novel whose central character describes himself as ‘a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties’. indeed he never uses the words ‘asperger’s’ or ‘autism’ (i slightly regret that fact that the word ‘asperger’s’ was used on the cover). if anything it’s a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way. it’s as much a novel about us as it is about christopher.

And therein lies the strength. In many ways Christopher is like a poet seeing the world  in new and unique ways and we see how the world treats and handles this uniqueness. What is great about Christopher is he never questions himself and how he sees himself. How many of us can say the same? He is different, it is frustrating at times, but in the end he works with what he has.

It is a book worth reading on many levels and for many reasons. But it should definitely be read.

Book 25 (a) Let's Have Lunch Together by Marshall Howard
Okay, I fully admit that last week I figured this book would fall into the worst category of my incredibly insightful breakdown of all business books into three categories (see last weeks blog to be reminded of my insight -- in case you forgot). Wrong! Despite the weak title, lousy layout, and large font, this is a book packed with great ideas.

Howard puts it in the context of a novel, but this is no literary masterpiece (nor was this his intent). Instead he puts his ideas in a large case study format and we can see how things would work out. The book is written to help with fund raising, but the focus is on relationships. Howard's refrain is "chase the relationship, not the money."  While this may not seem incredibly insightful, Howard does well to remind us that success comes from our relationships. People truly need to trust us and we need to trust them if we want to move forward.

I went through a day long workshop with Howard last week and it was noted that this methods could also be used by a good con artist. Which of course is true -- con artists know that relationships are essential. But because evil may use it does not make it wrong. We can fall into our cynical selves and give up on treating people as they should be. The difference is motivation and the idea is that strong relationships will bring about good things. But if you build the relationships for monetary or power reasons, the relationship will never be strong because it is built on a weak base (all biblically-minded can think stone vs sand here).

Howard's emphasis on relationships makes this work for people in all areas of business. While not a fundraiser myself, it did remind me of how I take for granted some people's support when I should be seeking to find out why support my endeavors to begin with. I have nothing more "to gain" from them, but certainly strengthening those relationships will not only make the business side of things stronger, they may also impact my life. What a concept.

Reading Challenges
I graded all my class essays early so I was not as far behind as normal. However, I also was a bit under the weather this week (second eye/ear infection in just over a month) which also cost me a couple of nights of reading. But Howard's book is an easy one night read and Haddon's book makes you want to keep reading. All in all, a surprisingly productive week. How productive?...

Next Up
...I've already started Simon Van Booy's collection of short stories (okay, five longish type stories), Love Begins in Winter. The first story was either overwritten or simply one of the best things I've read in a long time. I was captivated and stayed up much later than I should have to see how it would end. And love wins! Why do so few people see such hope today? And (I know, like a reading machine) I've read 2 of 3 graphic novel adaptations of Christmas classics. Well, they are supposed to be classics but anyone who has read L. Frank Baum's "A Kidnapped Santa Claus" raise their hands...I thought so. Even my oldest son with the most eclectic tastes I know has not read it. I'm reviewing all four books mentioned plus I hope to get a CD review done this week as well.

Happy reading!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Book Twenty-Four: The Firefly Effect: Build Teams that Capture Creativity and Catapult Results by Kimberly Douglas

About 18 months ago I went from working alone in a basement office to sharing space with five other people and a whole new host of responsibilities. As a result I've read more leadership/productivity/business books in that time than I have in my entire previous life. Half of them were quickly disposable, and only a few have been ones I recommend to others and return to myself. The books seem to fall in three main categories. First, you have the public speakers who need a book to sell after their talks and thus try to spin a good magazine article into a book (with short chapters and large font). The result is 20 good pages with another 100 pages repeating the same thinking (see The Fred Factor and QBQ). Second, you have speakers who know how to write, but tend to build their book by stringing together one story after another after another after another. Learning the importance of a thesis would benefit everyone greatly. Finally, you have leaders who know reflect on what they know and share those lessons in a humble, yet insightful, manner (see Max DePree's leadership books or Malcolm Gladwell's "thinking" books ).

Kimberly Douglas' work falls squarely in the second category. An experienced team building consultant Douglas decided to turn her experiences into a book we can all take home. She has some good ideas and event though her firefly analogy is stretched at times, the unique characteristics of these insects do provide us with a different way to look at the ordinary. While Douglas may get good results with her customers, this book tends to lose focus and requires to many "buy ins" along the way. 

Douglas appears to be familiar with every training exercise and copyrighted team building activity ever created. The one she hangs her hat on is the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), which she says is similar (but better) than the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), another well known assessment tool. With the HBDI you end up in one of four quadrants, labeled "Blue," "Yellow," "Green," and "Red." Since Douglas uses this in her consulting she refers to it often in the book. But if you are not familiar with the tool, or are familiar and do not find it effective, many of her examples will not work.

The book also contains strings of stories of dysfunctional teams (IT departments appear to notoriously bad) and how Douglas creates a strong team out of these unique individuals. At times she breaks down the exercises in detail, even indicating what you need to put on the flip charts. Much of this may be more interesting in the context of her presentation, but in a book it sounds like a "how to present" segment which grows quickly tiring.

One of the strengths of the book is the ability to refer back to individual chapters. You can focus on creativity, which she defines as "to be do something no one else would think of," or review her thoughts on the "new role of leadership," which involves "leading through inspiration and collaboration." She spends a couple of chapters on the positive and negative aspects of conflict, others on creating a vision and direction, and more on how to run effective meetings. Even the QBQ (Question Behind the Question) book gets a plug in having team members to hold themselves accountable. Anyone familiar with these types of books will see that Douglas does not so much present anything original as much as cover familiar topics with techniques which have worked for her.

Her strongest chapter is where she lets loose with her own thoughts toward the end of the book. After sharing an interesting story in how an amateur naturalist unwittingly shocked scientists with her observation of fireflies working in sync, Douglas notes that "[w]hat this story shows us it that a single person has a substantial amount of power to truly make a difference in an organization by first believing in something, and then taking action on it." In today's world the story of the individual impacting a larger community is one that resonates and may be where Douglas should build on her next effort.

Reading Challenges
This was tough one! I was not enthralled by the book so I found returning to it at night a challenge. I knocked off a good chunk of it in one night, but after that it was a struggle. I'm also in the midst of grading some essays which took time out of this week's reading and will really impact next week.

Next Up
Rereading "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," which I read last year so I have not commented on it yet. I'm teaching it in class so the reread has a purpose. In addition, I need to read a book which looks like category one in the business books, called "Let's Have Lunch Together." A board I am on is having a retreat with this author so we need to read this before that -- short chapters and large font so it should not be difficult.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Book Twenty-Three: America's Prophet: Moses and the American Story by Bruce Feiler

Ask the average American for the most influential person in the Bible and you'll likely hear "Jesus." Not so, says Bruce Feiler, who has made a career of bringing new life to old (but beloved) texts. Feiler keeps his wandering closer to home this time (he has traveled religious lands extensively) as he explores the importance of Moses in American history. Actually, importance is an understatement. According to Feiler, "you can't understand American history...without understanding Moses." He misses little ground in laying out his case, tracing the role of Moses in the Pilgrims, the Revolution, George Washington, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, the Statue of Liberty, Hollywood, Superman, and the Civil Rights Movement.

One of Feiler's strengths as a writer is seeking out new perspectives and discounting no one. He learns as much from scholars as he does from random conversations in part because he is interested in how issues impact people. Some of his ground here is well trodden, such as the United States founders interpreting their story as that of Moses, or seeing how the slaves found inspiration in the Moses story. But Feiler notes the slave owners used the same story for inspiration, especially as the Civil War approrached.

Therein lies a crucial argument for Feiler to address. Just because people have taken on the Moses story does not mean they were inspired by it. Indeed, some of what we see here is one of most common misuses of the Bible, where we appropriate scripture to justify whatever issue we wish to address. There is no doubt some of this is occurring with some of these examples, but that does not lessen the overall argument. But it is what makes Feiler's unusual subjects all the more interesting. His discussion of Cecil B DeMille's "Ten Commandments" movie shows how this was not just another movie for the famed director, but a chance to use the story of Moses to move American forward (as he felt it should). Even more interesting is the too short section on the creation of Superman as a modern-day Moses, a connection not missed by Hitler who banned the "Jewish" comic book.

By the end of the book the natural question is, so what? What do all these connections mean? Feiler anticipates the questions and summarizes his argument with three main themes. First, the story arises again and again because it tells of "the courage to escape oppression and seek the Promised Land." This aspect of the Exodus story is why so many people around the world can relate to the story. Anywhere and any time people are oppressed, the story of a people who break free from that oppression against all odds is inspiring.

Feiler's second theme is "the tension between freedom and law." Throughout the book this comes forth as one of Feiler's most interesting points. Moses realizes that freedom without law is chaos and receives the Ten Commandments. As the Pilgrims prepare to land they create their own set of laws, and during the Civil Rights movement they seek to overturn unjust laws but not escape the responsibility which comes with freedom. In the end the concept which best captures this is that of covenant, an agreement between individuals and their community, and for many, between their community and God. Current society clearly focuses on the idea of freedom over responsibility, and a reminder of this needed balance is important.

Finally, Feiler says a third theme is "the building of a society that welcomes the outsider and uplifts the downtrodden." This is not simply some left-wing interpretation of the Moses story. Instead, Feiler focuses on God's compassion to the Israelites throughout the Exodus story; if God shows such compassion, it is expected from the people as well.

So where is Moses today? Feiler and others offer no current models (Martin Luther King Jr. being the clearest, recent example). But then Moses is not meant to be around at all times. Instead, a Moses arises out of oppression when people need to be led forward, so it is certain that another Moses will appear at some point in the future. In the meantime, the Passover tradition is one which calls on people to remember the Exodus story, and now Feiler has given us the American Passover version of remembering this story and this person so we can be prepared for the next Moses.

Reading Challenges

Whew! Busy week at work, plenty of night time responsibilities, and a not-so-light read. Feiler's book is well written and interesting, but it takes time to ponder and he gives you many items to focus on. I went ahead of schedule and behind schedule and find myself writing this with the Red Wings (currently losing!) on tv. But again I'm reminded of how reading is a habit and I find myself anxious for my time to read.

Next Up

Continuing the non-fiction route with The Firefly Effect: Build Teams that Capture Creativity and Catapult Results. So much for good subtitles. This enters into my occasional reading area in the business/leadership/productivity world and is another books I was sent to review. My wife is getting jealous of all the packages I've been receiving in the mail, but hey, they are all free. I love free books!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Book Twenty-Two: A Person of Interest by Susan Choi

Reading Susan Choi's novel American Woman made me anxious to read more. But if you are like me, approaching a second work by an author is a bit scary. Probably like a second date (though fortunately my long marriage makes that hard to remember) -- you hope those good "vibes" from the first date do not turn out to be misguided. Alas, second dates and second books are sometimes a disappointment.

Not so with Susan Choi's novels (I'm guessing the same with dates since she is married). A Person of Interest builds on the same model as American Woman where Choi adds a fictional side to a real life event. First it was the Patty Hearst story, and this time the Unabomber meets up with Wen Ho Lee who was falsely accused of espionage. But Choi is even less interested in tying into real life in this book than with American Woman. Choi's interest is in how the truth can appear to be a malleable substance, but in the end the truth appears as an objective source around which we all revolve.

I'm not sure Choi would buy into this thought, but that is how the book plays out. Her main character, Professor Lee, is an undistinguished math professor close to retiring from an undistinguished Midwest school when his "hotshot" colleague is killed by a mail bomb. Although slightly injured himself in the blast, Lee emerges as a "person of interest," as the FBI struggle to piece together the truth. As we watch this emerge we step back into Lee's graduate career, his two failed marriages, his estranged daughter, and his own sleeplike existence in life.

While the FBI try to make their theories work, and fail, Lee is brought into focus as someone who has tried to make life work the way he wants, and fails. The clearest example is the infant child his first wife has with her first husband, although she was soon after having an affair with Lee. He refuses to see this child as part of their existence and his wife allows the child to be taken by her ex-husband. Lee's reality is that the child does not exist, but of course the truth is the child does exist and Lee's attempt to alter reality fails miserably. In addition, like the FBI he cannot shake his own theory of the bombing when he discovers the person he is sure is the bomber has been dead for many years. When reality does not conform to our thinking, we try to ignore it. We attempt to define the truth, when in fact the challenge in life is to live with the truths we are faced with.

The FBI run into the same problem with handling a truth different than what they expect. Lee could work out so well as the Unabomber that they are desperate to make it work, despite the fact (truth) that Lee offers them little hope. In the end, even the Unabomber (here called the "Brain Bomber") is someone who attempts to alter reality in part by creating his own truths. This is not to imply that reality and truth are identical, but in this case the character's inability to face reality does correspond with their inability to handle truth.

It is not often I wish for more writing -- great writers are able to convey a great deal with minimum amount of exposition. However, Choi introduces some characters which would be interesting to hear more about as they interact with the story. The abandoned infant son reemerges with a new name (Mark) and the dawning realization that his past as told to him is not the truth (more examples of people, in this case Christians, trying to alter the truth and failing). He is introduced and she creates as strong storyline and character with him, but the sudden ending leaves more unanswered questions. The same goes for Lee's estranged daughter who appears on the last page with a wave of hello at the airport. But this need for more is not just a prurient interest in how these characters turn out. All of these characters are now on a search for truth and seeing more of that journey would be interesting.

Choi's characters are always well drawn and interesting, no matter what their role in the story. Her writing is quick moving, yet thoughtful. She manages to pull off a lot with little action, and she puts forward a great deal of information without falling back on soliloquies to pull it off. Plus, while her writing explores some big topics, she knows how to create a great storyline which pulls the reader in to stay.

She'll be on my campus reading in just a few weeks so I look forward to seeing what she has to say at her reading. I know I'll be moving on to another one of her novels soon.

Reading Challenges
This was a very busy week with soccer practices for one, a piano trio for me to oversee, and extra planning for class. However, I blew ahead of my reading schedule for Choi by reading this in just a few nights. Choi is a joy to return to and an enjoyable break from the "truth" of life. If I have not convinced you to read her yet, please do so soon.

Next Up
We return to non-fiction and another review book, Bruce Feiler's America's Prophet: Moses and the American Story. Feiler is making the argument that the story of Moses has been a moving force in the US. I've read Feiler before and enjoy his unusual approach to issues. This should be an interesting read.