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.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Book Twenty-One: Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love by Lara Vapnyar

Despite my promises to read Susan Choi's novel last week, I received Vapnyar's latest collection for a review so, well, I'm working on the review. Plus, if truth be told, it is a quicker read than Choi and you can see below for this week's reading challenges. Plus (plus), I really liked Vapnyar's first collection of stories, "There are Jews in My House," so I had high hopes for this one. I was not disappointed.

Lara Vapnyar has a fascination with food, although not of the type usually written about and praised. Vapnyar's selection of food resembles her approach to fiction, which is simple, straightforward, and sustaining. Her first collection of short stories ("There are Jews in My House") showed the promise of a gifted story writer, and this second collection (a novel was published in between) confirm earlier expectations. The Russian born writer, now living in New York, came to the U.S. when she was 23 but writes in English. Perhaps writing in a second language has granted Vapnyar an economy with words other writers may want to imitate.

Many of the stories deal with the Russian immigrant experience, especially in New York, where all the Russians are henceforth working as "computer programmers" no matter what their previous work entailed. Nina, the main character in the opening "A Bunch of Broccoli on the Third Shelf," actually was a computer programmer. Now she is obsessed with vegetable shopping, although she never actually gets around to cooking with them. Food, as in many of these stories, shows a hope for the future, of what people like Nina will someday accomplish. In the meantime, the vegetables rot in the refrigerator, another set of hopes turning moldy. However, while Vapnyar may deal in realism, she is not above seeing hope as the story ends with Nina standing on a chair above the broccoli finally steaming on stove as "the warm aroma of broccoli rose up, caressing Nina's face, enveloping the whole of her."

The realism also takes hold in "Salad Olivier" where we see the heroine challenged to find a husband which, according to a psychologist, will allow her father to rise from the couch and reenter life. When she discovers such a man she realizes he may be more for his parents than for her, although she likes everything about him. Tempted to move on, she maintains the relationship in way that may be more familiar to most than they are comfortable with.

Sex and food, never far apart since the creation of the novel (see Fielding's "Tom Jones") are also part of the landscape here; although in "Borscht" it is the lack of sex and in "Slicing Sauteed Spinach" it is the focus on sex for which food is always the backdrop. "Borscht" is a sentimental favorite in the surprisingly quick creation of two sad, yet forward moving lives. In many ways this story highlights Vapnyar's skill with the short story as it creates a range of emotions in just a few pages,all with little action.

But "Luda and Milena" stands out in the collection as a story which is bound to be anthologized in future collegiate readers. Here we find two older single women (one a widow) using food as a way to entice the lone, elderly Russian man in their ESL class. The Friday potlucks become battlegrounds in the war for the heart, made only more hilarious by the complete dislike of cooking each women holds. The ending creates a satisfying resolution, but one completely unexpected.

Vapnyar's not afraid of ending a story, although like many short stories written today they can be seen as "slices of life." But the reader gets a complete picture in each story and Vapnyar is usually willing to point the story in a direction which goes beyond her pages.

At the end Vapnyar even throws in some recipe's with her own stories, although cold borscht may not be on everyone's menu. More importantly, as a whole we have a complete collection of stories offering a unique voice to American literature and a great new writer of the short story.

Reading Challenges
Oh, the ugly head of illness raises its head and takes me out for a couple of days. In addition, 17 4-page essays from my students to read and comment on and several of them required a bit of commentary. Of course, I also had a full day and half symposium I co-chaired and quite simply a busy week. Hey, even the Redwings reappeared on tv (they won) so I was torn. I started Choi's novel and was worried about getting everything all done when Vapnyar's book arrived for a review. Problem solved and I keep up with my reviews. Oh glorious week!

Next Up
Ask me tomorrow? I still want to read Choi's "A Person of Interest" but also just received another collection of short stories to review. All in all, life is pretty good when faced with such choices. However, 50 pages into Choi's book and I know I need to finish it -- a slow start which has quickly picked up and drawn me in.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Book Twenty: Operation Bite Back by Dean Kuiper

Book 20? Do I get some sort of prize? Well, at least it was an interesting book. I also snuck in book 20(a), entitled QBQ, The Question Behind the Question by John Miller. That was not so great, but it was little time wasted.

Kuipers' book explores a world known to few, but intensely followed by environmentalists on one hand and the FBI on another. Actually, it is not fair to paint this as an us vs. them book, since the actions of Rod Coronado, the subject of the book, splits even the environmentalists.

Coronado is an environmental activist who eventually began breaking into areas where animals were held and freeing them before burning down research centers. His radical beliefs have made him a folk hero among some, a terrorist to others, and an enigma to still more. Kuipers traces Coronado's life in such a way that we see his eventual criminal acts as a natural development of his ideals. He is raised with a love of nature, but moves from a hunter and fisher to become a vegan devoting his life to saving animals.

Coronado's radical beliefs are fostered early by Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd organization. Along with another member. Coronado sank two whaling boats in Iceland, although they made sure no people were on board at the time. This daring action quickly propelled him to fame and he escaped prosecution since Watson claimed credit to protect the two involved. We then see Coronado's involvement with Earth First! and the Animal Liberation Front, two more aggressive organizations aiming to undermine industries exploiting nature.

Eventually Coronado develops Operation Bite Back, which focused on fur farms and the fur trading industry. The book takes off in Kuipers' descriptions of the operations, which read at times like spy thrillers as Coronado stakes out his targets and avoids detection. Kuipers is clearly an environmentalist himself, and his journalism has focused on this area, which may explain his ability to get so many people to talk about illegal activities. The reader gets a full description of the rationale, the action, and the reactions behind the different attacks.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book surrounds Coronado's "disappearance" from society once the FBI identifies him and his picture begins adorning post office walls. A Native American, Coronado takes the time to begin fully examining his own roots, which not surprisingly support his approach to life. Yet these new experiences lead him to a new understanding of himself and he begins to rethink some of his positions. We also get to see the paranoia which develops in someone who realizes that every new person could be an undercover agent or that a friend may turn him in for a reward. Coronado does not always handle the pressure well, but before he can break the FBI finally captures him.

Coronado's story is also caught up in the political debate of what constitutes terrorism, and after the 9/11 attacks his past actions are viewed in a new light. However, Kuipers paints the FBI as some evil force going after an innocent man, when in fact they are tracking down a multiple arsonist. Agree with Coronado or not, his work clearly fits something which the FBI does track down on a regular basis.

This is a story which has not ended, and Kuipers struggles with how to end the book which tends to fizzle out. Coronado is still actively involved in the animal rights movement, but some of his beliefs have changed. What Kuipers shows very well is that Coronado is a person who acts on his beliefs, but is also all too human. He makes mistakes in his work, in his relationships, and even in how he treats himself. While Kuipers clearly admires his subject, this is no hagiography.

For those unfamiliar with the radical environmental movement, this book will be eye opening and enlightening. For those who are part of that movement, they will find a person to emulate. For those somewhere in between, this book will leave you with more questions than answers, which is always the sign off a good book.

QBQ: The Question Behind the Question

This falls into my leadership/organization/productivity area of interest. Like so many of these public speaker books, this has enough for about 40 good pages. Unfortunately, it is more than 40 and quickly falls off focus and fills space with predictable advice. The concept is great and the first part is worth the read. After that, skip most of it or skim it, which is not hard. Some chapters are literally one-two lines long. This is about a 45 minute read if you take some time with it. I got enough out of it to make it worthwhile.

Reading Challenges

I thought this would be a tough week, but again it came easy. The reading is really something I seek out now. A couple of nights I recognized that I was reading because I "have" to, but after getting into it I was quite happy I was. Reading is clearly a habit to be created and with practice it becomes a normal part of the routine. I've now read more books this year than in any year in recent memory, and I'll still read another 10 or so before it ends. Of course, the number is not important, but the commitment to reading is important. In the midst of a busy and demanding world, reading allows me to control what world I enter and gives me time to swim in it.

Next Up

I'm going back to Susan Choi and reading her most recent work, "A Person of Interest." I'll have the chance to hear her read in another month and I'm looking very forward to it. I'll also be reading 18 4-pg research essays in the next few days, so that will challenge the book reading time. But four are done and I have a schedule to have them done by Monday night, so I should be okay.