Reading – 2008
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A love affair with books
Not so good
Colin Thubron, Shadow of the Silk Road
Unabridged audio read by Jonathan Keeble
This summer, as I took my morning walks along the South St. Vrain river, I wandered wtih Thubron along the way of the old silk road through China, Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey. I marveled at time-eroded mountains and monuments through his eyes, learned about history that has all but been lost in shifting sands, met people of today and the past as they struggle through conquests, the brilliance of empires at their height, and the inevitable slide of greatness into decay.
It has been a thoroughly enjoyable walk.
'My wife loved to travel. She is always hopeful. When I was put out of the air force, I felt a great despair. But she said: go on, be strong, it will be all right. Always.' Quaintly he adds: 'She is my dear friend. When I go home tonight, I know she will be there. That is a wonderful thing. To have a friend.'
At first, when you're young, each place you come to is poorer than the place ahead, which you do not yet know. This other is extraordinary, beautiful. So you go on, perhaps for many years. You go on until you realise that the trading was also good, with certain shortcomings, in the city you left behind. Soon younger men say you have lost ambition; older, that you have grown wise. Then, as you settle, there is comfort, and a kind of sadness.
Jonathan Keeble is a wonderful narrator.
HarperCollins, New York, 2007
Walter Mosley, Fear of the Dark
An interesting exploration of fear and fearlessness, peopled with colorful characters.
Reading is how I made it through life. While other children were out getting into trouble, I was in the schoolroom or at the back of the church reading Treasure Island or Huckleberry Finn. Books were my radio and my daily drug. I could live without almost anyone or anything as long as I had a book to read. A long queue became a luxury if Anna Karenina was there to engage me. The doctor's waiting room became my private den if he kept up with his magazine subscriptions.
"You'll figure it out, Paris," he told me.
"Aren't you listening to me, man?" I asked. "I'm sayin' I don't know what to do."
"That's okay," he said. "That's how everything start. First you don't know an' then you do."
Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2006
Martin Limón, The Wandering Ghost
Starts well, but the story becomes increasingly implausible as it progresses.
Soho, New York, 2007
Liev Schreiber, Everything is Illuminated (the film)
I was so impressed by Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close that I picked up both the book Everything is Illuminated and Liev Schreiber's movie adaptation of it. Shortly after finishing the book, which didn't impress me, I watched the movie, not expecting much.
To my delight, I discovered a movie that focuses on the core brilliance of Safran Foer's story. The result is an astonishing film starring Elijah Wood as Jonathan Safran Foer, Eugene Hutz as Alex, Boris Leskin as Granfather, and Laryssa Lauret as Listra.
This is such a unusual occurrence. Almost without exception I am disappointed by the film adaptions of books, and I've seldom reviewed a film, finding most of them so much less fulfilling than books.
This film is a rare gift.
Warner Independent Pictures, 2005 (Internet Movie Database listing⩘ )
Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated
I read Safran Foer's second book, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, earlier this year and enjoyed it so much that I sought out this, his first. Unfortunately, my experience of this book was quite different: flashes of clarity and brilliance interspersed between long passages that left me bored and impatient. I could barely wait for it to be finished, almost not making it to the last page.
We walked out and closed the door behind us. I yearned to be on the other side of the door, the side on which such momentous truths were being uttered. Or I yearned to press my ear to the door so that I could at minimum hear. But I knew that my side was on the outside with the hero. Part of me hated this, and part of me was grateful, because once you hear something, you can never return to the time before you heard it.
It was marked MAP OF THE WORLD, 1791. Even though the shapes of the land were some amount different, it remained to appear very much like the world as we currently know it. "This is a premium thing," I said. A map such as that one is worth many hundreds, and as luck will have it, thousands of dollars. But more than this, it is a remembrance of that time before our planet was so small. When this map was made, I thought, you could live without knowing where you were not living.
Perennial, New York, 2002
Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth
Unabridged audio read by Sarita Choudhury and Ajay Naidu
Edgy and often sad stories about the Bengali immigrant experience. Even the children of the immigrants feel the influence of their cultural ties back to India. These ties push and pull them, sometimes nearly unobtrusively, sometimes with a burning fierceness.
Sarita Choudhury's narration is beautiful. I wish she had read the entire book. Ajay Naidu's voice worked for the character Kuashik and helped bind the series of short stories featuring that character together, but didn't work as well for other male characters, especially older men.
Knopf, New York, 2008; Random House Audio, 2008
Eliot Pattison, Prayer of the Dragon
If I had first read any of Pattison's books other than his first, I wouldn't have read another. Because I so enjoyed his first book, I keep picking up his books, but keep being disappointed. Enough.
"This is how the world ends, my wife said once, how great civilizations fall to pieces. The old things meant to be passed down, they are the best things distilled out of thousands of years of experience. But somehow in the last century we decided our own lives were too important, that fast cars covered with chrome, and television, and computers made us better than our ancestors. That's the lie that kills the great things."
SOHO, New York, 2007
Robert Kurson, Crashing Through
A True Story of Risk, Adventure, and the Man Who Dared to See
The story of the experiences of Mike May, a guy who has ignored boundaries and achieved truly exceptional things including breaking world records in downhill speed skiing, inventing a breakthrough navigational devices, and successfully creating a business.
The story of these accomplishments alone would have made for a compelling book, and does make for compelling reading through the first half of this book, especially when you consider that he did all of this after having been blinded by a chemical accident when he was a young child.
Then comes an amazing moment. Through advances in medical science, Mike regains vision in one of his eyes at the age of 46. The second half of the book is about the challenges and triumphs he experiences with his new ability to see. Though his eye regains near perfect functioning, he struggles with his brain's inability to process everything he is seeing.
Kurson writes the story with passion and compassion; I found myself turning pages through the second half of the book with as much anticipation as I have with any thriller I've read.
"Mike," [Dr.] Goodman said, "I think we can make you see."
"You know how, when you're learning a language, sentences don't just roll off your tongue? You have to think of the vocabulary words you want. Then you have to conjugate the verbs. Then you have to figure out how to order the words. That's what seeing feels like to me. One way or another, either through touching or logic or clues or whatever, I've gotta think about what I'm seeing, I have to put it all together consciously. Only then do I understand what I'm seeing."
"You're not fluent."
"I'm not fluent. except for color and things that move—that stuff just happens for me. It's like color and moving things are my native language."
How could knowledge make it possible to see? Surely, the most uneducated person saw as well as the most learned. But [scientists Hermann von] Helmholtz, [Richard] Gregory, and the others were not referring to a knowledge of facts and figures of the kind found in encyclopedias. By knowledge, they meant a set of assumptions about the world and the objects that exist in it. This set of assumptions, they argued, was so deeply ingrained in the human brain that people imposed them instantaneously, automatically, and unconsciously on the visual data streaming in from the eyes. No one realized they were using knowledge to interpret the visual scene, but everyone did it all the time.
There was powerful evidence to support this theory. Among the most compelling examples was the existence of visual illusions. If objects were simply out there to be seen, visual illusions wouldn't occur—people would see things properly, as they actually were. Yet there were numerous visual illusions. What caused them?
Gregory and others argued that many visual illusions resulted when a person's implicit knowledge—that instant, automatic, and unconscious set of assumptions about the world and its objects—dominated over contrary evidence from the eye.
How is the very young child to make sense of this jumble of visual data? How is he to translate these shapes into three dimensions and give them meaning, to make them more than just a collection of colorful blobs? How is he to build the knowledge of the world and its objects that is so essential to vision? It's not as if anyone can explain it to him.
There is only one way for the very young child to do this. He must interact with the things he sees. He must experiment with them, investigate them, explore them, probe them, play with them, touch, taste, smell, and hear them. He must handle everything, manipulate everything, go to and reach for everything. He must make his nursery his laboratory, a place in which his endless tests and trials with things—especially by touch—lead to a knowledge of their textures, shapes, purposes, and functions, to an understanding of their natures. Without that constant and direct interaction and experimentation with things, he cannot begin to form his set of assumptions about the world and its objects.
The human brain contains approximately 100 billion neurons. Neurons are a particular type of nerve cell designed to process and transmit electrical impulses. Some of these neurons transmit signals from the world outside, bringing signals to the brain from the eyes, ears, fingers, and even the stomach wall.… But the majority of neurons receive, modify, and pass along signals from other neurons. Each neuron forms thousands of connections with other neurons, meaning that the number of possible combinations between them is greater than the number of elementary particles in the universe. It is thought that the brains of higher primates, and their network of neurons, are the most complex structures in the universe.
To learn something as staggeringly complex as vision—with all its subtleties, shadows, cues, clues, priors, exceptions, contexts, and confusions—a person needs massive amounts of neurons available and ready for that purpose. But who owns a supply like that?
Young children do.
Consider the enormous learning of which young children are capable. Compared with adults, for example, they learn language at a staggering rate. Such learning is made possible in the very young child by huge stores of available neurons that are awaiting assignment. In fact, children have an overabundance of available neurons for learning; those that don't get used actually die as the baby becomes a small child.
Adults, however, don't have that kind of ready supply of neurons available for learning. Nor, it seems, do adult neurons form connections with other neurons as quickly and easily as do young-child neurons. That's why adults simply can't learn like children do.
A powerful example of this is language learning. An adult who learns a language will never be as fluent as a person who learned that language in childhood. In most cases, a native speaker can tell the difference between another native speaker and an expert later learner. A linguist can tell in every case.
Random House, New York, 2007
Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto
Unabridged audio read by Scott Brick
Pollan opens his book this way:
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to maximally healthy.
So with such a simple summation, what can he say to fill the next 200 pages? Quite a bit, as it turns out, mostly debunking the short, sorry history of nutritional science, which has overwhelmed us with overwhelmingly bad advice since the mid-1800s, and especially since the 1970s.
It turns out that nearly everything nutritional science has taught us about eating has been wrong, dangerous, even, to our individual and national health. The modern substitutes that have been recommended in place of traditional diets have been an unmitigated disaster.
So what can we do in the face of this blizzard of confusing and contradictory recommendations? Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Although I have found his latest two books somewhat depressing to read because they have shown me how off course I've been for most of my life—beginning when my parents drove us to neighboring Wisconsin to buy the supposedly healthy margarine with its little packets of orange food dye embedded in its fake ingredients in order that we could fool ourselves into thinking we were still eating something akin to real food—I end up feeling profoundly grateful that he has provided me with the tools to think more wisely about what I eat.
Now let's see if I can turn things around and achieve a more natural and healthy balance.
Scott Brick is not among my favorite narrators and starts off way too theatrical for this type of book, but he settles down enough after the introduction to make it listenable.
Penguin Press, New York, 2008; Penguin Audio, New York, 2008
Eric Weiner, The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World
Unabridged audio read by the author
I absolutely loved this book! It is the nearest I've come to hearing my own voice in another writer's words: a little cynical, no smiley faces dotting the i's, and a dry wit expressing an appreciative curiosity and an unquenchable thirst to understand.
The next morning, I wake before dawn and meet Tashi downstairs. A few minutes later, our driver pulls the Toyota up to the tiny terminal building and Tashi announces, "We have arrived at the airport, sir."
I'm going to miss this guy. We shake hands goodbye. I use two hands, one cupped over the other, and make a point of prolonging the moment. I pay attention.
I clear customs and security quickly and find myself with plenty of time on my hands before my flight. It's raining outside, and I wonder if it's safe to take off in this weather, with the mountains so close, so high.
I think about plane crashes more than most people. I know how to fly planes, small ones, and while you'd think this would be a source of great reassurance, for me it has the opposite effect. Every shake or bump or something not quite right strikes fear in me. Is that flap extended properly? Are we descending too rapidly? Doesn't that left engine sound funny?
Yet sitting here in this airport terminal that looks like a Buddhist temple, watching an archery match on a small TV screen and drinking bad instant coffee, I am overwhelmed with a feeling that is alien to me: calm. Not hashish- or alcohol-induced calm, but the real thing. I take out my pen and write the following words in my notebook, using large letters, scrawling across an entire page so that when they find my body in the wreckage it will be easier to spot.
I would not have done anything differently.
All of the moments in my life, everyone I have met, every trip I have taken, every success I have enjoyed, every blunder I have made, every loss I have endured has been just right. I'm not saying they were all good or that they happened for a reason—I don't buy that brand of pap fatalism—but they have been right. They have been … okay. As far as revelations go, it's pretty lame, I know. Okay is not bliss, or even happiness. Okay is not a basis for a new religion or self-help movement. Okay won't get me on Oprah. But okay is a start, and for that I am grateful.
Can I thank Bhutan for this breakthrough? It's hard to say. Bhutan is not Shangri-La, of that I am sure, but it is a strange place, peculiar in ways large and small. You lose your bearings here, and when that happens a crack forms in your armor. A crack large enough, if you're lucky, to let in a few shafts of light.
[T]here is no denying that, for Icelanders at least, language is an immense source of joy. Everything wise and wonderful about this quirky little nation flows from its language. The formal Icelandic greeting is "komdu sæll," which translates literally as "come happy." When Icelanders part, they say, "vertu sæll," "go happy." I like that one a lot. It's so much better than "take care" or "catch you later."
The Icelandic language, like the people who speak it, is egalitarian and utterly free of pretense. Bill Holm captured the casual elegance of the Icelandic language in—what else?—a poem.
In an air-conditioned room you cannot understand the
Grammar of this language,
The whirring machine drowns out the soft vowels,
But you can hear these vowels in the mountain wind
And in heavy seas breaking over the hull of a small boat.
Old ladies can wind their long hair in this language
And can hum, and knit, and make pancakes.
But you cannot have a cocktail party in this language
And say witty things standing up with a drink in you hand.
You must sit down to speak this language,
It is so heavy you can't be polite or chatter in it.
For once you have begun a sentence, the whole course of
your life is laid out before you.
I love that last line in particular. It speaks to how words can possess a momentum of their own, beyond the literal meaning they convey.
I've spent most of my life trying to think my way to happiness, and my failure to achieve that goal only proves, in my mind, that I am not a good enough thinker. It never occurred to me that the source of my unhappiness is not flawed thinking but thinking itself.
Until I traveled to Thailand. Thais are deeply suspicious of thinking. For the Thais, thinking is like running. Just because your legs are moving doesn't mean you're getting anywhere. You might be running in a headwind. you might be running on a treadmill. You might even be running backward.
Thais do not buy self-help books or go to therapists or talk endlessly about their problems. They do not watch Woody Allen movies. When I ask Noi and other Thais if they are happy, they smile, of course, and answer politely, but I get the distinct impression that they find my question odd. The Thais, I suspect, are too busy being happy to think about happiness.
Indeed, I find myself questioning where all these years of introspection have gotten me: a library of self-help books and an annoying tendency to say things like "I'm having issues" and "What do you think think that means?" A Thai person would never say things like that.
Thai culture, while rare in its distrust of thinking, is not unique. The Inuit frown upon thinking. It indicates someone is either crazy or fiercely stubborn, neither of which is desirable. The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan describes one Inuit woman who was overheard to say in a righteous tone, "I never think." Another woman complained to a friend about a third woman because she was trying to make her think and thus shorten her life. "Happy people have no reason to think; they live rather than question living," concludes Tuan.
Twelve, New York, 2008
Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses
Translated from Norwegian by Anne Born
A wonderfully told story. An older man who has lost his wife in a car accident has retired to a small cabin away from it all in an attempt to forget by immersing himself in the small tasks of everyday rural life. An unexpected encounter with a childhood neighbor causes him to reflect upon a most significant summer of his life, one that he had chosen, along with so much else, not to think about.
Petterson writes with an assured naturalness, capturing the spirit of time and place flawlessly. I was mesmerized.
I want to use the time it takes. Time is important to me now, I tell myself. Not that it should pass quickly or slowly, but be only time, be something I live inside and fill with physical things and activities that I can divide it up by, so that it grows distinct to me and does not vanish when I am not looking.
Graywolf Press, St. Paul, 2005
Nicole Krauss, Man Walks Into A Room
After reading and thoroughly enjoying The History of Love, I decided to pick up this, Krauss's first book. While flashes of the brilliance that coalesced in her next book are here, this story is a bit awkward where her next is assured, a bit difficult to believe where her next pulses with the essence of real.
He lay down and closed his eyes. With sleep came forgetfulness. He felt at home there.
He thought: You come, you find a life ready-made, you just have to slip it on.
From the air there seems to be a system: recognizable designs, networks on the desert floor. Crosshatches of ridge and fissure. Lines that fan out from the source. The shadow of the airplane slips across basin and range. Frost forms between the plane's double windows, each geometric crystal an argument for the stillborn beauty of pure math. Eventually the cut of a road appears, as deep as a fossil in shale. Unbound by destination, a road simply for the sake of moving, however slowly, through miles of nothing. Through the system. The first grid is the strangest, the geometry of better living etched onto the desert floor: identical houses of a planned community pleated around the nucleus of a swimming pool. One and then another, until the desert is paved with streets and scattered with countless pools like a deck of blue cards.
[N]o matter how great the desire is to be understood, the mind cannot abide any presence but its own. To enter another's consciousness and stake a flag there was to break the law of absolute solitude on which that consciousness depends. It was to threaten, and perhaps irrevocably damage, the essential remoteness of the self.
How was it possible to wake up every day and be recognizable to another when so often one was barely recognizable to oneself?
Nan A. Talese, New York, 2002
Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
How to describe a book like this?
It's a story of possibility, of loss and searching, of sorrow beyond imagining, of the tentative steps toward living again. The story is told in the voices of a 9-year-old boy, his grandmother, and the man who is his grandfather (though the boy doesn't know that). At times I was impatient with how the grandparents were expressed, until I began to understand how the three stories shaped each other.
It's amazing how, out of the ashes of the Twin Towers and Dresden, Safran Foer has resurrected a fable of determination and healing.
We stopped laughing, I took the world into me, rearranged it, and sent it back out as a question.
"Oh well! So many people enter and leave your life! Hundreds of thousands of people! You have to keep the door open so they can come in! But it also means you have to let them go!"
"It's a shame," she said, "that life is so precious."
Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2005
14 years later: I just watched the film adaptation of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close after bumping into it accidentally. It has been long enough that I almost completely forgot the story, except remembering that I found it exceptional, so I was able to watch it with fresh eyes and without comparing it to the book. What an incredible film. My heart is so deeply touched.
Jo Nesbø, The Redbreast
Translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett
Nesbø's cover flap bio reads, "a musician, songwriter, economist, and one of Europe's most critically acclaimed and successful crime writers today." I love it that he put musician and songwriter first.
This book was voted the "Best Norwegian Crime Novel Ever Written" by members of Norwegian book clubs. I can understand why. The story dives deeply through its more than 500 tightly written pages into multiple layers of Norwegian life and psyche, including the trauma the nation went through during World War II and the chilling layers of class and sexism that apparently still frost Norwegian society today.
His main detective and the general tone of the procedural are a bit formulaic, but the complexity and depth of his story overcomes that.
"We're all pawns, Harry. There's always a hidden agenda."
Harper, New York, 2000
Steven Johnson, The Ghost Map
This is not a book I would've picked to read myself. I don't enjoy reading about this place—Britain, more specifically, London—during this period of time, the 1800s. It was a time I find overwhelmingly filthy and horrible, not at all pleasant to read about. But a colleague from work, Adam Hughes, a map genius himself, recommended it to me and actually lent me his copy. I'm grateful he did.
Yes, the descriptions of the time and place are horrifying. At times I wanted to throw the book down, to burn it, even, and rush out to scrub my hands with burning hot water and harsh soap. I found myself gasping for air and feeling despair. I became suspicious of our own well water. It is a most vividly told story of a frightening epidemic of cholera. Johnson takes us into the bedrooms of the dying, describes them as individuals rather than statistics, makes us look into their aware eyes even as we see their insides rush out of them and their skin turn blue, sinks us into their fetid cellars, awash in stinking excrement teeming with deadly pathogens, seeps us underground to follow the oozing filth into the very well that serves the neighborhood with its "fresh" drinking water, makes us watch as innocent children drink innocently in an attempt to quench the burn of the overwhelming heat of London in summer. I shudder to even rethink the story enough to write this.
But Johnson also discusses the enlightened thinking and great logical leaps made by perceptive and caring people, especially Dr. Snow and Reverend Whitehead, who both set aside their preconceived notions and discovered the truth revealed by the calamity of death, that the pathogen was in the water, not the air. Their persistence in the face of the fearsome pestilence and scornful resistance by those who favored the idea that the disease was airborne enabled modern society to rise above the fetid sewers of contaminated filth and substandard thinking and conquer the disease, making the long-term success of great cities, until then questionable, possible.
I found the epilogue particularly fascinating. It helped me—a lover of rural living who is puzzled why anyone would want to live in a city—understand the attraction, energy, benefits, power, and promise of great cities. And their inherent, undeniable risk.
Ultimately, the book is reminder that we should all discipline ourselves to look beyond the conventional and search for the real answers to the challenges we face, whether great or ordinary. We can't all solve cholera, but we can all make a difference.
However brilliant Snow was, he would never have proved his theory—and might well have failed to concoct it in the first place—without the population densities of industrial London, or Farr's numerical rigor, or his own working-class upbringing. This is how great intellectual breakthroughs usually happen in practice. It is rarely the isolated genius having a eureka moment alone in the lab. Nor is it merely a question of building on precedent, of standing on the shoulders of giants, in Newton's famous phrase. Great breakthroughs are closer to what happens in a flood plain: a dozen separate tributaries converge, and the rising waters lift the genius high enough that he or she can see around the conceptual obstructions of the age.
But Broad Street should be understood not just as the triumph of rogue science, but also, and just as important, as the triumph of a certain mode of engaged amateurism. Snow himself was a kind of amateur. He had no institutional role where cholera was concerned; his interest in the disease was closer to a hobby than a true vocation. but Whitehead was an amateur par excellence. He had no medical training, no background in public health. His only credentials for solving the mystery behind London's most devastating outbreak of disease were his open and probing mind and his intimate knowledge of the community. His religious values had brought him into close contact with the working poor of Soho, but they had not blinded him to the enlightenments of science. If part of the significance of Snow's second map lay in the way it empowered the community to represent itself, Whitehead was the conduit that made the representation possible. Whitehead was not an expert, an official, an authority. He was a local. That was his great strength.
However profound the threats are that confront us today, they are solvable, if we acknowledge the underlying problem, if we listen to science and not superstition, if we keep a channel open for dissenting voices that might actually have real answers.
Riverhead, New York, 2006
John Heilemann, The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing But The Truth: The Untold Story of the Microsoft Antitrust Case
I typically don't review magazine articles, but as part of its 15th Anniversary Look Back series, Wired.com just reintroduced their November 2000 story about the Microsoft Antitrust Case⩘ :
When John Heilemann began working on a book about Silicon Valley in 1998, he discovered that he was hitting up many of the same sources as a group of lawyers from the Department of Justice. The DOJ, of course, was building its antitrust case against Microsoft, and Heilemann wanted in: "I started calling around and got the assistant attorney general to let me inside a lot of the case — as long as I didn't write anything until the trial was over."
Two years later, Katrina Heron, then Wired's editor in chief, convinced Heilemann that his material was too timely for a book—and perfect for Wired.
At 45 pages, this is the longest magazine article I've ever read, and also the most compelling. I missed it the first time around, but am really glad I caught it this time.
Reading it gave me an opportunity to better understand the forces that have shaped my last decade of work experience. As Heilemann was beginning to research this, I was near the beginning of what has turned into more than a decade of deep involvement in the software business. While Microsoft was preparing for and going through its trial, I was working for a company that had tied its future to Microsoft Windows.
I think about the fundamental underlying issue, "the damage to innovation—the products left undeveloped, the areas of technology left unexplored. For example, there was almost no R&D on operating systems anymore. What did that imply for the future of technology? And how long could innovation continue to flourish in an industry suffused with fear?"
An amazing read.
Wired.com, November 2000, The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing But The Truth⩘
Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
It seems that the kinds of issues Vonnegut tackles in this book—the consolidation of wealth and the class system in America, and all the people this approach callously leaves behind—don't get discussed anymore. Pity, they need to be discussed. One of the prime legacies of the Bush years is that his policies deliberately accelerated the transfer of our national wealth to the wealthy and magnified the gulf between rich and ordinary.
Where is a contemporary voice like Vonnegut's to mock this and to challenge people to wake up and see the disgrace of what is happening? Vonnegut wrote this, his sixth book, when he was in his early 40s, more than 40 years ago. Where are today's Vonneguts? All the attention seems to be paid to these moronic political campaigns squandering 100s of millions of dollars on petty bickering and he said/no he said bullshit, while the handlers have handled both the voice of "change" and the "maverick's" voice into mind-numbingly boring mediocrity. Meanwhile, our country is bleeding and there are no paramedics.
Why aren't people angrier?
Dial, New York, 2006 (1965)
Nicole Krauss, The History of Love
Leo Gursky and Alma Singer are two of the world's greatest lovers.
He's old, wrinkled, with a card safety-pinned to his chest:
MY NAME IS LEO GURSKY I HAVE NO FAMILY PLEASE CALL PINELAWN CEMETERY I HAVE A PLOT THERE IN THE JEWISH PART THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION.
She's fourteen and trying to survive her crazy family while also attempting to solve the world's deepest mystery.
They've never met. And yet.
They are joined by a string that has criss-crossed the continents, unbroken even by the calamity rained down by the Nazis, binding them together even as it is hidden from them by old betrayals and the faint and fading line between what is real and imagined.
Ms. Krauss has written an amazing journey, one that navigates the unfathomable distances between one heart and another.
When I got older I decided I wanted to be a real writer. I tried to write about real things. I wanted to describe the world, because to live in an undescribed world was too lonely.
I'm a man who wanted to be as large as life.
I tried to make sense of things. Now that I think about it, I have always tried. It could be my epitaph. LEO GURSKY: HE TRIED TO MAKE SENSE.
In the days after my heart attack and before I began to write again, all I could think about was dying. I'd been spared again, and only after the danger had passed did I allow my thoughts to unravel to their inevitable end. I imagined all the ways I could go. Blot clot to the brain. Infarction. Thrombosis. Pneumonia. Grand mal obstruction to the vena cava. I saw myself foaming at the mouth, writhing on the floor. I'd wake up in the night, gripping my throat. And yet. No matter how often I imagined the possible failures of my organs, I found the consequences inconceivable. That it could happen to me. I forced myself to picture the last moments. The penultimate breath. A final sigh. And yet. It was always followed by another.
Norton, New York, 2005
Per Petterson, In the Wake
Translated from Norwegian by Anne Born
A strong story of loss and the struggle back from a mad numbness to some semblance of normalcy. Electrifying for its insights into the human soul and psyche through glimpses of the past and present, fragments in time that the main character can barely tell one from other.
She is younger than I had imagined, or rather, certainly younger than me, which is not saying much at present, for everyone I see these days who is definitely a grown-up is younger than I am, and it doesn't help no matter how long I look at myself in the mirror. I see the same person I have always seen, whereas everyone else keeps changing, and I have a shock each time I realise that this is not how it is.
And then she looks at her watch. I don't know why, but she glances down at her watch and looks over at me again, and then I do the same thing. I look at my watch. It is half past four. That tells me nothing except the time of day.
Thomas Dunne, New York, 2002
Dennis Lehane, Prayers for Rain
I decided to give Lehane one more try, searching for a book of his whose description didn't sound as bleak as Gone, Baby, Gone. There's no denying that Mr. Lehane writes a powerful story, but as this second book I've read of his confirms, he's simply too dark in his outlook for me.
Morrow, New York, 1999
Martin Limón, Slicky Boys
Sueno and Bascom, a pair of military investigators, are back at it prowling the bars and brothels of Itaewon, attracting trouble while attempting to stamp some order on the seething GI village nearby the big U.S. Army base in Seoul some 20 years after the end of the Korean war.
As with the other books of his I've read, Limón's voice is assured, his eyes sharp, his ears keen, and his sense of people and place perceptive. And his imagination gets a little carried away.
"Slicky boys" was a term that had come into use during the Korean war, more than twenty years before. The entire peninsula, from the Yalu River on the border with China to the tip of the peninsula at the Port of Pusan, had been completely ravaged. Hardly a factory or a business enterprise of any sort still stood. Crops had been allowed to rot in the fields after terror-stricken families fled to evade the destruction by the armies that stormed back and forth across the land. People were desperate. People were starving.
In the midst of this destruction were a few military enclaves, surrounded by barbed wire and sandbags. the only places that had food, that had clothing, that had shelter.
Some of the people would barter with the GI's for the wealth they held. They'd trade anything, even their bodies, for something as insignificant as a bar of soap.
Others took more direct action. These were the slicky boys.
"Slick boys" is what the GI's called them, but the Korean tongue is incapable of ending a syllable in a harsh consonant. They must add a vowel. So "slick" became "slicky." And the GI's picked it up. "Slicky boys" stuck.
And some of them really were boys.
Six, seven, eight years old. They could more easily slip through the barbed wire and hide on the compound for hours and bring something precious to their waiting families. A handful of dried potatoes, a can of preserved beans.
Soho, New York, 2004 (1997)
David Shields, The Thing About Life is that One Day You'll Be Dead
Unabridged audio read by Don Leslie
An interesting but at times rambling and disjointed musing about our relatively quick journey toward sexual maturity and our typically long decline toward death that begins immediately after. Listening to all of the metrics, and the book is full of them, has relaxed me. Aging happens, and so does death. The only question left is how I enjoy what time and vitality I have left to me.
Some of the author's stories about his own life, father, and family were relevant, adding meaning and depth to the statistics; others bored me, seeming pointless and out of place. (Come on, come on, I don't have that much time left! :)
Life is perfected by death.
Knopf, New York, 2008
Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night
A wry exploration of a sobering moral dilemma: how evil can you be in the service of good? And what are the consequences for your heart and soul?
This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don't think it's a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
There's another clear moral to this tale, now that I think about it: When you're dead you're dead.
And yet another moral occurs to me now: Make love when you can. It's good for you.
I have never seen a more sublime demonstration of the totalitarian mind, a mind which might be likened unto a system of gears whose teeth have been filed off at random. Such a snaggle-toothed thought machine, driven by a standard or even a substandard libido, whirls with the jerky, noisy, gaudy pointlessness of a cuckoo clock in Hell.
The boss G-man concluded wrongly that there were no teeth on the gears in the mind of Jones. "You're completely crazy," he said.
Jones wasn't completely crazy. The dismaying thing about the classic totalitarian mind is that any given gear, though mutilated, will have at its circumference unbroken sequences of teeth that are immaculately maintained, that are exquisitely machined.
Hence the cuckoo clock in Hell—keeping perfect time for eight minutes and thirty-three seconds, jumping ahead fourteen minutes, keeping perfect time for six seconds, jumping ahead two seconds, keeping perfect time for two hours and one second, then jumping ahead a year.
The missing teeth, of course, are simple, obvious truths, truths available and comprehensible even to ten-year-olds, in most cases.
Dial Press, New York, 2006 (1961)
George Nelson, How to See: A Guide to Reading Our Man-Made Environment
A wonderfully insightful and gorgeous book! My meditation teacher used to invite us to go beyond looking and actually see. This book is a similar invitation. At one point, Nelson muses that this book should really be titled, How I see, and welcomes us to use how he sees as an opportunity to enhance how we see.
If A finds something beautiful, and B thinks it is not beautiful, but okay, and C is convinced that it is the ugliest thing he has ever encountered, where do we go from there? This is almost always what happens in a society where there is very little experience in seeing. There is always that character who doesn't know anything about art, but knows damn well what he likes. If a public relies on the judgments of a book reviewer, or a film or theater critic, the authority given him seems to be based as much on his experience as anything else. One of the things we can build up, in the absence of reliable measuring techniques, is experience. We do this by looking and thinking about what we are looking at.
Kudos to Rob Forbes, founder of Design Within Reach, for resurrecting this treasure and creating this splendidly printed and bound reedition.
Design Within Reach, Oakland, 2003 (1977)
Michael Dibdin, Cabal
After having so thoroughly enjoyed his first book that I purchased the whole series, then having found his second disappointing, I was happy when this one started strong and continued to build its intrigue throughout most of the story.
Though others obviously appreciated it—it was awarded the French Grand Prix du Roman Policier award—my overall impression was diminished as I found the ending banal.
The one thing you could be sure of, the only absolute certainty on offer, was that you would never, ever, know the truth. Whatever you did know was therefore by definition not the truth. Like children playing "pass the parcel," the commentators and analysts tried to guess the nature of the mystery by examining the size, shape, and weight of the package in which it had been concealed. But the adult game was even more futile, for once the wrappings had all been removed the parcel usually proved to be empty.
Vintage, New York, 2000 (1992)
Daniel H. Pink, A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age
For the most part I enjoyed this book, though I think Mr. Pink has made one error in his overall presentation. After introducing us to four knowledge workers in Mumbai by name (Srividya, Lalit, Kavita, and Kamal) and photo, he uses the fear of outsourcing to set up his argument that we will need to do something they can't do more cheaply.
I think this is simplistic fear mongering. In this age of instant knowledge transfer, why shouldn't anyone in the world, regardless of which side of Mr. Pink's ocean they are on, be able to master this shift he's speaking about. Better that each of us, on all sides of every ocean, think about how we can integrate the ideas he's presenting into our thinking to improve our work abilities everywhere.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if Mr. Pink's Conceptual Age raised the standard of living for intelligent people the whole world over simultaneously rather than merely being a tool of advantage for one nation to wield over another?
We are moving from an economy and a society built on the logical, linear, computerlike capabilities of the Information Age to an economy and a society built on the inventive, empathic, big-picture capabilities of what's rising in its place, The Conceptual Age.
If you want a creative life, do what you can't and experience the beauty of the mistakes you make.
– Marcel Wanders, Professional Amateur www.marcelwanders.com⩘
Riverhead, New York, 2006
Addendum: It's several weeks after I read and reviewed the book and I just watched Pink's DVD, which captures him giving a talk about his ideas. I caught something toward the end of the talk that I missed in the book. He talks about the two standard types of companies—for profit and not for profit—and then suggests that there is a third type of company that he thinks is following a big, bold, audacious, public-spirited path to success as the best performing companies today, companies that have linked purpose and profit in an approach that he calls: not only for profit. He shares, as an example, this comment:
"Making high profits is the means to the end of fulfilling Whole Foods' core business mission. We want to improve the health and well-being of everyone on the planet through higher-quality foods and better nutrition, and we can't fulfill this mission unless we are highly profitable.… Just as people cannot live without eating, so a business cannot live without profits. But most people don't live to eat and neither must a business live just to make profits."
– John Mackey, founder and CEO of Whole Foods in Reason Magazine, October 2005
In his live talk, Pink comes across as much more matter of fact about outsourcing, a tenor I appreciate more. The talk is the distilled essence of a book that is a few hundred pages long, so perhaps this underscores the wisdom of tight editing.
Better Life Media, 2006
John Scalzi, Old Man's War
Scalzi explores the implications of cloning and consciousness against a military SF backdrop. His writing is fluid and vivid, though not groundbreaking.
Tor, New York, 2005
William Gibson, All Tomorrow's Parties
A friend—a Quebecer and freelance translator with an amazing command of both his native language, French, and English—recommended Gibson's Virtual Light trilogy.
I was a bit disappointed with the first two books of the trilogy. My journey with Gibson is a bit strange. I had gone off traveling and had consciously stopped reading (in an attempt to be more fully engaged in what I was experiencing) at the time Gibson's first books were being published, and only stumbled across his first book, Neuromancer, a few years ago. I immediately and enthusiastically jumped from that to his most recent book. Reading some of his other earlier books was then a bit of a letdown, as he was just beginning to explore in them some of the ideas and themes that would become fully realized in his later books, so they didn't seem so fresh to me.
My Quebecer friend enjoyed the first two books of the trilogy more … not surprising, he has the heart of a poet and seems to embrace the world a bit more joyfully than I. Even so, he said this is the book of the trilogy.
He's right. In this story, Gibson hits his stride and takes us on a thrill ride through the landscape of his imagined future. We're still catching up to the future he first envisioned before either the internet or virtual reality existed, and his description of both still rings true with authenticity and potential, even as the reality of some of what he dreamed is being revealed to us today.
I had all sorts of plans for this long weekend, but I couldn't walk away from this story. Perhaps I'll get something else done today, now that I've turned the last page.
The same passage that caught my friend's eye is my favorite from the book:
The wind tugs at her hair, longer now than when she lived here, and a feeling that she can't name comes like something she has always known, and she has no interest in climbing farther, because she knows now that the home she remembers is no longer there. Only its shell, humming in the wind, where once she lay wrapped in blankets, smelling machinist's grease and coffee and fresh-cut wood.
Where, it comes to her, she was sometimes happy, in the sense of being somehow complete, and ready for what another day might bring.
And she knows she is no longer that, and that while she was, she scarcely knew it.
Putnam, New York, 1999
Cory Doctorow, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom
Doctorow is a certainly a leading thinker about copyright law in this new age of digital media. As the stupid current generation of DRM systems are slowly eliminated, I'm personally appreciative of the contribution he has made toward exposing the harm they cause to people like me who have experienced problems using digital content we've paid for. I suppose his reputation and thought leadership contributed to the big name endorsements of this book (Lawrence Lessig, Howard Rheingold, Jeff Bezos, Tim O'Reilly). But it bored me … what to do?
Part of that may be that, unlike seemingly everyone else on this planet, I find the whole Disney World thing a bit strange, even creepy. More so for having heard a bit about what it's like behind the scenes from someone who did some kind of management internship there. Give me a surly waitress who let's me know she's in a bad mood over one who gives me a fake smile any day.
I read a bit of SF, so none of the ideas presented in this book are new to me. Perhaps his intellectual reputation invited a few people who never touch the genre and thus haven't read books created around these possibilities to read his book? Or perhaps they were simply trying to build up their own cred (what he lamely calls "whuffie" in this book) by bestowing some of their own.
He struck another cig. "But you know what a junkie is, right? Junkies don't miss sobriety, because they don't remember how sharp everything was, how the pain made the joy sweeter. We can't remember what it was like to work to earn our keep; to worry there might not be enough, that we might get sick or get hit by a bus. We don't remember what it was like to take chances, and we sure as shit don't remember what it felt like to have them pay off."
TOR, New York, 2003
William Gibson, Virtual Light, Idoru
Gibson does both bleak and techno-slick near-future atmospherics better than anyone else I've read, but after having read and enjoyed Neuromancer and then having skipped ahead and enjoyed, for the most part, Pattern Recognition, I've found little fresh in the next books of his I've read, Count Zero and these. They're not eye opening, though they do provide a fun escape from the hot weekend sun.
She feels real claustro now, like she does up in the offices sometimes when a receptionist makes her wait to pick something up, and she sees the office people walking back and forth, and wonders whether it all means anything or if they're just walking back and forth.
You're too young to remember how it felt, though. Oh, I know, I know, you all think you live in all the times at once, everything recorded for you, it's all there to play back. Digital. That's all that is, though: play back. You still don't remember what it felt like.…
Chia's "now" was digital, effortlessly elastic, instant recall supported by global systems she'd never have to bother comprehending.
Chia knew that when her mother was born, there had been no net at all, or almost none, but as her teachers in school were fond of pointing out, that was hard to imagine.
Bantam, New York, 1993; Berkley, New York, 2003 (1996)
John Medina, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School
Unabridged audio read by John Medina.
Once in a rare while, I just can't praise a book enough. This is one of those.
I listened to this book on my commute. I began raving about it to friends somewhere during chapter two. By the time I was half way through, I was emailing all my colleagues with whom I exchange book tips to let them know this is one fun, incredible book.
I should've known: one of my colleagues wrote back to let me know that John Medina had given a talk a couple months ago at Google about a couple of the "rules" he shares in this book. I immediately searched for and found the video of the talk and watched it (Authors@Google: Dr. John Medina⩘ ). Wow! He is so passionate about what he is sharing! He simply explodes with excitement and mischievous enthusiasm. He's one of those rare speakers who takes you on an irresistible journey into his adventure. And his adventure is life itself!
I'm so enthralled with this book that I can't wait to begin reading it now that I've finished listening to it! It is already influencing how I live my life. Let me share just two things I heard him say. First, a snippet: he talks about, "the unbelievable power of unrestricted curiosity." Yes! Second, a story:
My 2-year-old son Noah and I were walking down the street on our way to preschool when he suddenly noticed a shiny pebble embedded in the concrete. Stopping midstride, the little guy considered it for a second, found it thoroughly delightful, and let out a laugh. He spied a small plant an inch further, a weed valiantly struggling through a crack in the asphalt. He touched it gently, then laughed again. Noah noticed beyond it a platoon of ants marching in single file, which he bent down to examine closely. They were carrying a dead bug, and Noah clapped his hands in wonder. There were dust particles, a rusted screw, a shiny spot of oil. Fifteen minutes had passed, and we had gone only 20 feet. I tried to get him to move along, having the audacity to act like an adult with a schedule. He was having none of it. And I stopped, watching my little teacher, wondering how long it had been since I had taken 15 minutes to walk 20 feet.…
I will never forget the moment this little professor taught his daddy about what it meant to be a student. I was thankful and a little embarrassed. After 47 years, I was finally learning how to walk down the street.
Listen to this book! Read this book! Watch his talk at Google! As soon as possible!
Pear Press, Seattle, 2008
Chip Heath & Dan Heath, Made to Stick
Unabridged audio read by Charles Kahlenberg
Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
The Heath brothers both studied how ideas stick, but from two different perspectives—one running an education-focused company and the other as a professor at Stanford—before collaborating on this book. The result is a solid exploration of the key ingredients of messages that have legs.
This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has "cursed" us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can't readily re-create our listeners' state of mind.
Unfortunately, the narrators voice, older and sounding a bit worn out to me, doesn't match the youthful enthusiasm of the authors. I'll hang onto the book, to read again, but not the audio.
Random House, New York, 2007
Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, The Art of Possibility
A "Why not?" book. We can see it around us all the time and may even experience it ourselves: in similar circumstances, we sometimes react out of fear and other times we respond from a space of possibility. I think fear is a primal reaction, but that doesn't mean we need to be shackled to it. This book is about slipping out of those shackles of fear and embracing life's possibilities.
A simple way to practice it's all invented is to ask yourself this question:
What assumption am I making,
That I'm not aware I'm making,
That gives me what I see?
And when you have an answer to that question, ask yourself this one:
What might I now invent,
That I haven't yet invented,
That would give me other choices?
Harvard Business School, Boston, 2000
Wangari Maathai, Unbowed
A deeply inspiring memoir by a woman who overcame astonishing adversity to help awaken the moral, political, and environmental awareness of her country, Kenya.
Publicly scorned by the entrenched dictatorship, arrested and jailed multiple times, even beaten, and still her spirit never waned. Slowly, step by step, she spread her vision.
By the time this story was published, she had inspired the planting of millions of trees throughout Kenya, across North Africa, and around the world. She fearlessly led crusades to free political prisoners and save Kenya's forests from being sold off by Kenya's corrupt government.
For years, she was recognized for her fearless work with many awards from around the world, culminating in the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. She is one of our world's most courageous champions of human rights, sustainable and equitable management of environmental resources, and peace.
A heartwarming story.
In his prime, my father seemed like a mountain to me: strong, powerful, invulnerable, immovable. Many years later, when he got old and sick with cancer of the esophagus and could hardly move, that fantastic picture of him would come back. It helped me to understand how wonderful it is to be healthy and able to move, how quickly those youthful years pass, and how vulnerable we are.
To me, a general orientation toward trusting people and a positive attitude toward life and fellow human beings is healthy—not only for one's peace of mind but also to bring about change. This belief came from a combination of my education and my Kikuyu heritage, which taught me a deep sense of justice.
I sat down to listen to myself….
I recalled the words a friend had told me, the philosophy of her faith. "Life is a journey and a struggle," she had said. "We cannot control it, but we can make the best out of any situation."
Many people assume that I must have been inordinately brave to face down the thugs and police during the campaign for Karura Forest. The truth is that I simply did not understand why anyone would want to violate the rights of others or to ruin the environment. Why would someone want to destroy the only forest left in the city and give it to the friends and political supporters to build expensive houses and golf courses?…
What people see as fearlessness is really persistence. Because I am focused on the solution, I don't see danger. Because I don't see danger, I don't allow my mind to imagine what might happen to me, which is my definition of fear. If you don't foresee the danger and see only the solution, then you can defy anyone and appear strong and fearless.
Throughout my life, I have never stopped to strategize about my next steps. I often just keep walking along, through whichever door opens. I have been on a journey and this journey has never stopped. When the journey is acknowledged and sustained by those I work with, they are a source of inspiration, energy, and encouragement. They are the reasons I kept walking, and will keep walking, as long as my knees hold out.
Knopf, New York, 2006
James Lee Burke, The Tin Roof Blowdown
An intense and angry book set in New Orleans and her surroundings in the day leading up to Katrina, through the storm, then Rita, and the shameful short-term and long-term aftermath.
Burke tells a good yarn, but I most appreciate his unblinking eye on what unfolded in our America. When a fellow cop points out Bush flying safely high overhead in Air Force One a couple days after the storm, my heart sank … again.
I hope our official historians recording from their ivy towers are as unflinching in their writing as is Burke; otherwise, we'll end up with two stories, the official one and the one the rest of us know to be true.
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2007
George Crile, Charlie Wilson's War
Unabridged audio read by Christopher Lane
An eye-opening and devastating story about the war the CIA directed in Afghanistan to help destroy the Soviet army and, by extension, the Soviet Union.
That a war costing billions of dollars can be waged and paid for without the full awareness of the American people and lacking a robust debate in congress is astonishing and frightening … except when you consider how easily Bush and his administration shaped the public opinion and manipulated the congress to support his reckless drive to war. Have we earned the right to public debate? Or are we all just so many lapdogs?
That an alcoholic congressman and a lone CIA agent could shape the destiny of an entire country right beneath the noses of the Executive branch and the press without either of them really noticing what was happening is almost unbelievable. The next time you hear Reagan won the Cold War, just laugh knowing he wasn't even fully aware of what was going on in the congress right down the street.
Bravo, George Crile, for bringing this story and its odd cast of characters to light.
It's not uncommon for a single childhood experience—particularly if it is a traumatic one—to end up shaping an entire life. Sometimes it offers the only key to understanding what leads a person to make choices that would otherwise seem irrational. That certainly is the case with Charlie Wilson and his decision to embrace the long lost cause of the Afghans.
Christopher Lane's narration is adequate, but I longed for something far more audacious to match the story and its characters.
Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2003; Blackstone Audio, 2003
Garima Fairfax, Kitchen Botany
A disclaimer - I share my life and my heart with Garima.
I don't spend a lot of time cooking or reading cookbooks, and I consider it a major accomplishment that I know the common names of a dozen or so trees and plants. But I spent a lot of time laying out and proofreading this book. It's a very cool book full of a very big heart. Garima loves plants. She also loves cooking. She's happiest when she's in her garden or creating food, and those qualities of love and joy shine forth from her book.
Wild Sage Botanicals, Lyons, 2008
Garr Reynolds, Presentation Zen
Inspiring. Garr's reflections have immediately influenced the way I prepare my presentations. I think a lot now about how I can portray my respect for the people to whom I'm presenting by making my presentations more alive.
The principles I am most mindful of through every step of the presentation process are restraint, simplicity, and naturalness: Restraint in preparation. Simplicity in design. Naturalness in delivery. All of which, in the end, lead to greater clarity for us and for our audience.
His wonderful blog: www.presentationzen.com⩘
New Riders, Berkeley, 2008
Michael Dibdin, Vendetta
I thoroughly enjoyed Dibdin's first book, Ratking, but found this, his second book, uninspiring by comparison.
Vintage Crime, New York, 1998 (1991)
Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke
Unabridged audio read by Will Patton
A long, astonishing, wildly insane journey through the impact of the Vietnam War on the souls of several Americans and Vietnamese, and a few others. Johnson's writing can make your blood freeze and stop at times and burn and roil at others. Will Patton rasps, growls, murmurs, disturbs, soothes, and mesmerizes with an exquisitely good reading.
Hao spoke softly to Master. He wished him lucky dreams. He himself couldn't sleep. His bowels smothered with fear. What if another grenade rolled toward him out of the night? Listening for his murderers, he became aware of the oppressive life of the jungle, of the collective roar of insects, as big as any city's at noon. A curse lay over everything. His wife was sick, his nephew was dead, the wars would never stop. He found his sandals with his feet and went out to the well and drank from the can in the dark and recollected himself. Nothing could hurt him. He'd lived, he'd known love, he'd been shown much kindness. Lucky life!
FSG, New York, 2007; Macmillan Audio, 2007
Alexander McCall Smith, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
The opening book in this internationally popular series simply didn't hook me. It's just a bit too cute, simple, and tidy, and I can't help but wonder about the authenticity of the lead character: what would Mma Ramotswe sound like if she had been written by a Botswanan woman rather than a Scottish man?
I've read novels written about main characters who were quite different from their author that seemed to work, but in those cases, the characters were outsiders or outcasts, which I felt gave the authors more license. In this case, the main character is fairly mainstream; I'm guessing her real-life counterpart, if she existed, would be a much more complex and interesting person.
It was curious how some people had a highly developed sense of guilt, she thought, while others had none. Some people would agonise over minor slips or mistakes on their part, while others would feel quite unmoved by their own gross acts of betrayal or dishonesty.
Anchor Books, New York, 2002 (1998)
Daniel Quinn, Ishmael
While it was interesting to consider fundamental questions about our future (or lack thereof) from flipped perspectives, in the end the story left me unconvinced. I think the answers will be found in evolving toward a better understanding of our universe and finding ways to balance our technology so that we are nourishing rather than depleting the resources of our planet. If not, we'll most likely crash. I don't think adopting the narratives of ancient peoples is an answer or even desirable.
Ishmael thought for a moment. "Among the people of your culture, which want to destroy the world?"
"Which want to destroy it? As far as I know, no one specifically wants to destroy the world."
"And yet you do destroy it, each of you. Each of you contributes daily to the destruction of the world."
"Yes, that's so."
"Why don't you stop?"
I shrugged. "Frankly, we don't know how."
"You're captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live."
"Yes, that's the way it seems."
"So. You are captives—and you have made a captive of the world itself. That's what's at stake, isn't it?—your captivity and the captivity of the world."
'Why is it that no one is excited? I hear people talking in the Laundromat about the end of the world, and they're no more excited than if they were comparing detergents. People talk about the destruction of the ozone layer and the death of all life. They talk about the devastation of the rain forests, about deadly pollution that will be with us for thousands and millions of years, about the disappearance of dozens of species of life every day, about the end of speciation itself. And they seem perfectly calm.'
Ishmael nodded. "Diversity is a survival factor for the community itself. A community of a hundred million species can survive almost anything short of total global catastrophe. Within that hundred million will be thousands that could survive a global temperature drop of twenty degrees—which would be a lot more devestating than it sounds. Within that hundred million will be thousand that could survive a global temperature rise of twenty degrees. But a community of a hundred species or a thousand species has almost no survival value at all."
Bantam, New York, 1995 (1992)
Dennis Lehane, Gone, Baby, Gone
After watching the movie the other day I was curious to read the book upon which it was based. The movie, grim as it was, intrigued me for its strong presentation of a dilemma that had no clear right choice. Other elements of the screenplay left me dissatisfied and wondering if much had been lost in the translation from book to film.
The book presents a very different story, actually, one every bit as grim, but that makes much more logical sense.
In the end, as compelling as is Lehane's mystery writing, the world he tells is simply too harsh for my tastes: devoid of beauty with the sole exception of one woman, full of drunks, drug addicts, and low-lifes, deadly dangerous to children, and permeated with decay, dereliction, and violence.
HarperTorch, New York, 1998
Tom Kelley, The Ten Faces of Innovation
Unabridged audio read by Stow Lovejoy.
I originally listened to this book on my morning walks last fall, but found it so rich in material that I felt compelled to return to it to read the paper version.
It's one of those books that ended up full of markers and stickies covered with hastily scribbled notes, and will be something that I share with my peers at work in an innovation exercise. I think clearly understanding these ten personas will enhance the way I team up with my colleagues to tackle projects that demand actionable creative thinking.
The first step in becoming extraordinary is simply to stop being ordinary.
It is not enough to just have a good idea. Only when you act, when you implement, do you truly innovate. Ideas. Action. Implementation. Gain. Profit. All good words, of course, but there's still one piece left out. People. That's why I prefer the Innovation Network's definition: "People creating value through the implementation of new ideas." The classic 3M definition might leave you with the impression that, as a bumper sticker might put it, "Innovation Happens." But unfortunately, there's no spontaneous combustion in the business world. Innovation is definitely not self-starting or self-perpetuating. People make it happen through their imagination, willpower, and perseverance. And whether you are a team member, a group leader, or an executive, your only real path to innovation is through people. You can't really do it alone.
The Learning Personas
- The Anthropologist
- The Experimenter
- The Cross-Pollinator
The Organizing Personas
- The Hurdler
- The Collaborator
- The Director
The Building Personas
- The Experience Architect
- The Set Designer
- The Caregiver
- The Storyteller
But seeing with fresh eyes may be one of the hardest parts of the innovation process. You have to put aside your experience and preconceived notions. You have to drop your skepticism and tap into a childlike curiosity and open-mindedness. Without the sense of wonder and discovery, you're likely to be blind to the opportunities right before your eyes.
Doubleday, New York, 2005
Michael Pollan, Omnivore's Dilemma
Sometimes I almost though not quite wish I had remained ignorant of something I've learned.
Pollan examines in detail the sources, experience of eating, and consequences of four different meals: an industrial fast food meal eaten in a car based largely on industrial corn, an "industrial-organic" meal from Whole Foods enhanced by "Supermarket Pastoral" marketing, a "local food economy" meal rooted primarily in grass farming, and a forager's meal with ingredients he hunted, grew, and prepared himself.
For each meal, he tracks down as much as possible the sources of each ingredient. He reveals the relentless machine that is industrial corn; the miserable, drug-saturated, and short lives of corn-fed cattle; the only slightly less miserable lives of chickens raised to stock the shelves of the multi-billion dollar organic supermarkets; the harmonious, though labor-intensive practice of grass farming; and the exhilaration and horror of killing your own dinner.
I found the first section describing industrial agricultural devastating. Each chapter left me feeling more hopeless and horrified than the previous. It strikes me as patently unethical, yet I eat from this food chain from time to time.
The second section describing industrial-organic agricultural—which is my primary food chain, especially in winter—surprised me for how uneasy it left me feeling. Although better for reducing the amount of chemicals poured into the environment, it is still an industrial process that causes much damage and consumes much fossil fuel.
I finally began to feel good as I read the third section describing a food chain based primarily on grass farming. I wish Pollan had explored the local, non-industrial, organic vegetable/fruit food chain a bit more in this section, but it certainly provoked me to recommit myself to shifting as much as possible into a local vegetable and grass farming-based food chain.
Grass farmers grow animals—for meat, eggs, milk, and wool—but regard them as part of a food chain in which grass is the keystone species, the nexus between the solar energy that powers every food chain and the animals we eat. "To be even more accurate," Joel [Salatin of Polyface Farm] has said, "we should call ourselves sun farmers. The grass is just the way we capture the solar energy." One of the principles of modern grass farming is that to the greatest extent possible farmers should rely on the contemporary energy of the sun, as captured every day by photosynthesis, instead of the fossilized sun energy contained in petroleum.
"One of the greatest assets of a farm is the sheer ecstasy of life." – Joel Salatin
The final section of the book focuses on the ethics of eating animals and on the experience of hunting, killing, and dressing a wild animal he then prepared for a dinner with friends.
In the final section I discovered the explanation to a mystery I've been wondering about. On my frequent trips to Mountain View, we quite often fly over the south end of the bay, just north of where I work, where there are huge, vividly colored ponds, startling colors, actually. I've always wondered what they are.
Early in my menu planning I had learned that there are still a few salt ponds at the bottom of San Francisco Bay. You can see them flying into SFO, a sequence of arresting blocks of color—rust, yellow, orange, blood red—laid out below as if in a Mondrian painting. The different colors, I learned, are created by different species of salt-tolerant algae and archaea; as the seawater evaporates from the ponds, the salinity rises, creating conditions suitable for one species of microorganism or another.
Penguin, New York, 2006
Rob Gifford, China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power
Unabridged audio read by Simon Vance
An excellent story and an equally excellent reading.
Rob Gifford reports on his farewell journey wandering over three thousand miles from Shanghai to Kazakhstan along route 312, hitching rides with truckers, stopping everywhere, talking to everyone, and weaving in the insight gleaned from six years as the National Public Radio Beijing correspondent.
Personal, poetic, hopeful, angry, and most of all, empathetic with the people he befriends along the way, Gifford pours forth an unparalleled tale. These are words to be savored with the same enthusiastic appreciation he displays for the vibrant life that flows through China on route 312.
If you want to begin to understand China, or perhaps to realize that China is really too vast to be fully understood, read this book, and then read it again, as I hope to.
It's early morning. The rising sun embraces Nanjing in its heat and light, looking for all the world as though it belongs to China and not to its mortal enemy across the sea to the east. Morning is the best time in China, before all the layers of impossibility have piled themselves upon each other. Everything seems possible as a hot summer sun rises on a modern Chinese city.
I walk back to ask the man about his job, and what the new road has done to his life. He simply says he has to pick up litter along the road, and he gets paid two dollars a day to do so. More he doesn't know.
I turn away from him and back toward the taxi, sitting alone on the new black tarmac. Its red paint is the only fleck of color in an otherwise yellow landscape. Mrs. Elvis is leading her lover in a tango on the hard shoulder of the road.
A sudden wave of emotion sweeps over me at having reached the end of the road, and effectively, the end of my time in China. I stand there thinking back on my journey and all the people I've met, and scarcely believing that it's over. Perhaps this is what it felt like to travel west in the United States in the 1890s: not knowing what the future held for the great country that you've just seen, but feeling just the sheer privilege of having witnessed the churn of history, the transformation of a nation, the emergence of a new power, that takes place only once every three or four generations.
Random House, New York, 2007; Blackstone Audio, 2007
Leigh Thompson, Negotiations
I like books that present information like this: just enough to seed my own thinking on a subject.
If you only have one hour to prepare …
- Identify your key goals.
- Brainstorm your options.
- Plan your opening move.
- List all the issues to be negotiated in the first column. (Be ready to add issues the other party brings up.)
- For each of the issues listed, in the second column, indicate its relative importance to you (use either a rank order or allocate 100 points among the issues), your most desired terms, and your underlying interests.
- For all issues, in the third column make your best guess about the counterparty's interests, rankings, and most desired terms.
Creating value refers to "win-win" negotiation. It is the process of developing deals that represent mutual gains for all parties involved. To create value, we need to cooperate with the other parties and genuinely work with their interests in mind.
Management guru Mark Parker Follett tells the story of two sisters quarreling over a single orange. Both sisters are strong, tough, and ultra-competitive, to the point that the only agreement they can reach is to split the orange in half. One sister squeezes the juice from her half to make fresh orange juice and discards the peel. The other sister grates her half of the peel for an orange scone recipe and throws out the juice. In the heat of the argument, the sisters overlooked a simple win-win solution.
BATNA. Best alternative to negotiating an agreement.
In general, win-win questions satisfy one or more of…: interests, incentives, and inquiry.
First and foremost, win-win questions elicit information about the underlying interests of the other party, rather than about their demands.
Second, win-win questions do not give other parties an incentive to lie or misrepresent themselves.
Third, good win-win questions allow the other part to either confirm or refute. This type of question-asking is an inquiry, as opposed to advocacy.
Thus, a postsettlement settlement represents a mutual improvement over a given deal that both parties currently find acceptable.
According to Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, whether people avoid or embrace risk depends upon how the problem or decision is framed. When people are asked to make approach-approach decisions (that is, choosing a sure good thing or a gamble that might lead to something much more attractive), most people are risk adverse. However, if the same problem is framed as an avoidance-avoidance problem, the tables are turned and people are much more likely to gamble!
FT Press, Upper Saddle River, 2007
John Hart, Down River
A well-written, fast-paced, but ultimately forgettable summer thriller. Ah, but it's not summer, is it? Well, it's also a good read to unwind with from an intense period of work on a day off in early February when it's too windy to do much outside.
Thomas Dunne, New York, 2007
Daniel Tammet, Born on a Blue Day
If you are intrigued by numbers and fascinated by our brains, this is a must read.
Daniel is famous for having recited from memory the number pi to 22,514 decimal places. In his book, he explores his entire life and his amazing experiences with numbers and languages. For example, he learned the difficult language Icelandic well enough in seven days to converse reasonably fluently during a televised interview in Reykjavik.
It's both an awe inspiring and awful experience to read his book. His descriptions of his childhood seizures and awkwardness with social interactions are wrenching, while his story about the way he has surpassed these challenges is exhilarating. Both his recitation of pi and his participation in the fascinating documentary Brainman are shining triumphs.
The relationship I have with a language is quite an aesthetic one, with certain words and combinations of words being particularly beautiful and stimulating to me. Sometimes I will read a sentence in a book over and over again, because of the way the words make me feel inside.
One of the most common questions I was asked in these interviews was: Why learn a number like pi to so many decimal places? The answer I gave then as I do now is that pi is for me an extremely beautiful and utterly unique thing. Like the Mona Lisa or a Mozart symphony, pi is its own reason for loving it.
The line between profound talent and profound disability is really a surprisingly thin one. – Daniel Tammet in the documentary Brainman.
Daniel's website: http://www.danieltammet.net⩘ .
I love the beautiful jacket design by Eric Fuentecilla.
What does it really mean to recite pi to 22,514 decimal places? >
Free Press, New York, 2006
David Cottrell, Monday Morning Leadership
This book caught my eye because of its mentoring approach. Unfortunately, the lessons are mediocre and the audio recording is poorly executed.
This is supposed to be a series of Monday morning chats between a young, struggling manager and an older, successful businessman. However, the audio comes across as two twenty-somethings (or one who is modulating his voice to create two characters) quickly reading a manuscript with little understanding or appreciation of the material. Parts of it sound like someone reading a phone book. He/they read so fast it's sometimes difficult to tell the breaks between sentences. It's particularly galling to hear the portrayal of the supposedly wise older man by someone who hasn't got any sound of experience in his voice.
On the positive side, the book is short so I only wasted a couple mornings of my commute listening to it.
Cornerstone, Dallas, 2002
Tim Winton, The Turning
Unabridged audio read by Humphrey Bower & Caroline Lee
I picked this up for another chance to listen to Humphrey Bower read (I had first heard him read Shantaram several weeks ago). He and Caroline Lee do a wonderful job of bringing alternating stories in this story cycle alive.
Winton's book is a collection of powerful, related short stories told by adults who are reflecting on things they experienced as they were growing up in a rural coastal town in Western Australia. The stories range from melancholy to tragic to tense and edgy, tempered by a faint suggestion of hope.
The stories are strong enough that I'll want to listen to or read them again. The next time I'll pay more attention to the identities of the characters in the early stories, knowing that they show up again in later stories.
Scribner, New York, 2004; Bolinda Audio, Victoria, 2005
Michael Dibdin, Ratking
Dibdin wrote this, his first book about Italian Police Commissioner Aurelio Zen, in 1989, and it won the Gold Dagger Award. In all, he wrote eleven books about Zen, another of which won the French Grand Prix du Roman Policier, and seven other books, before dying in 2007.
It's such a random journey, finding books to read. I enjoy reading mysteries, so spend a fair bit of time looking for books in associated genres, but somehow missed taking notice of Dibdin until just a couple weeks ago. When his final book did catch my eye, I found the praise of his Zen series so profuse that I decided to begin with this, the first in the series.
It was a good decision; this is a fine book. In fact, I enjoyed it so thoroughly that I ordered the rest of the books in the series before I finished this one. He uses the story, the mystery, as an excuse to share wonderful and mischievous insights into his lively characters. A real delight to read.
The food was brought to their table by Ottavio's youngest son, a speedy little whippet who, at fourteen, had already perfected his professional manner, contriving to suggest that he was engaged on some task of incalculable importance to humanity carried out against overwhelming odds under nearly impossible conditions, and that while a monument in the piazza outside would be a barely adequate expression of the debt society owed him, he didn't even expect to get a decent tip.
The road to Rimini bypassed the town and in a few moments they were out in the wilds again, laboring up a steep, tortuous medieval track on which modern civilization had done no more than slap a layer of asphalt and a route number. The ascent was arduous and prolonged, twisting and turning upward for more than twelve kilometers to the pass, almost a thousand meters high. The starkness of the landscape revealed by the headlights penetrated the car like a draft. Zen sat there unhappily taking it all in. He didn't much care for nature in the raw: it was messy and wasteful and there was too much of it. This was a fertile source of incomprehension between him and Ellen. The wilder and more extensive the view, the better she liked it. "Look at that!" she would exclaim, indicating some appalling mass of barren rock. "Isn't it magnificent?" Zen had long given up trying to understand. It all came of her being American, he supposed. Americans had more nature than anything else except money, and they got pretty excited about that too.
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, New York, 1997 (1989)
Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Painter of Battles
Translated from Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden
A riveting story of a former war photographer confronted years later by a Croatian soldier he had photographed who has come to try to understand him, and to kill him for the horror inflicted upon the soldier's family when the photo was published to international acclaim.
Pérez-Reverte was himself a war correspondent, and his story reverberates with the authenticity of his experience.
She also had an unstudied skill for neutralizing the swinish side of the people who waited on her: the resentment hidden beneath the servility of those who grudgingly wait on others while dreaming of head-lopping revolutions, or of those who assume their role with dignified resignation.
From so much abuse, so much manipulation, it's been a long time since a picture was worth a thousand words.
Maybe the representative work of art of the twentieth century isn't Duchamp's urinal after all but this collection of disassembled pieces. Broken Dream of Blued Metal. I think that's the name I like best. I don't know if the AK-47 is exhibited in any museum of contemporary art, but it should be, like this, in pieces. Like this one. So uselessly beautiful once it is taken apart and exposed, mechanism by mechanism, on an oil-stained military poncho.
Aristotle, his friend began, and Faulques interrupted, saying, Don't start off on Aristotle, for Christ's sake. I'm talking about real life and real death. The smell of a corpse beneath the rubble, the smell of death slipping like fog along the bank of a river. His friend looked at him three seconds before speaking. Aristotle, he continued imperturbably, never limited himself to expounding on how things were, but searched for the reason why. To understand ourselves, he said, we must understand the universe; and to understand the universe, we must understand ourselves. What happens is that since then a lot of water has passed under the bridge. When we divorced ourselves from nature, we humans lost the ability to find consolation in the face of the horror awaiting us out there. The more we observe, the less meaning it all has and the more forsaken we feel. Think how—thanks to Gödel, who certainly rained on that parade—we can't find refuge any longer in the one place we thought was secure: mathematics. But look. If there's no consolation as a result of observation, we can find it in the act of observation itself. I'm talking about the analytical, scientific, even aesthetic act of that observation. Gödel aside, it's like a mathematical procedure: it has such certainty, clarity, and inevitability that it offers intellectual relief to those who know how to utilize it. I would say it's analgesic. And so we turn back to a somewhat battered but still useful Aristotle: understanding, including the effort to understand, is our salvation. Or at least it consoles us, because it converts absurd horror into serene laws.
Faulques didn't answer. He was remembering, a little disconcerted, what his scientist friend had added when they were talking about chaos and its rules: that a basic element of quantum mechanics was that man created reality by observing it. Before that observation, what truly existed was all possible situations. Only through observation did nature become concrete, take a stance.
And you know what I think? That you were a good photographer because to take a photograph you have to frame, and to frame is to select and exclude. Save some things and eliminate others … Not everyone can do that: set himself up as a judge of all that's happening around him.
From the dark shore of his memory, she watched him drink cognac.
"It's just more visible during wars. After all, wars are nothing more than life carried to dramatic extremes. Nothing that peace cannot contain, in small doses."
The jacket design is strange. To me, it has absolutely nothing to do with the story.
Random House, New York, 2008
Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano
When Vonnegut passed away last year I decided to read, re-read, for the most part, his books. I read his final book, A Man Without A Country, then jumped to a couple of his early books, Cat's Cradle and Sirens of Titan, the two books that had established him as one of America's great writers.
When I began this, I had thought I had read all of his books except the final one, but I didn't remember anything from the next two, and the same is true of Player Piano, his first book. It isn't out of the question that I simply forgot these stories. This one was written before I was born, and if I read these books previously, it would've been more than 30 years ago. The other possibility is that I was simply mistaken thinking I had read everything of his, though I think that's less likely.
Regardless, it's fun that these books are entirely fresh to me.
This is a quite provocative story. Though about the future (beyond 1952, at least), it's much less fantastic than many of his following books. It's the story of our time, a time when automation is eliminating the need for much of the activity we formerly used to define ourselves, a time when engineers and IQs rule, and people of the hand are has-beens.
It is also a story of manipulation: the kind that corporations and societies practise to keep their people in line, and the kind that revolutionaries practise to jar people out of line. Ultimately, it's about the futility and emptiness of both of these types of manipulations. If you read this story and can't catch glimpses of yourself in various characters as they're experiencing these manipulations, you haven't really lived yet.
"Happiest I ever was, I guess, Paul; so damn engrossed, I never looked up to notice anything else."
"Most fascinating game there is, keeping things from staying the way they are."
"If only it weren't for the people, the goddamned people," said Finnerty, "always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren't for them, earth would be an engineer's paradise."
"Let's drink to that."
Dial Press, New York, 2006 (1952)