Saturday, December 31, 2016

Completed: Lincoln on Leadership

[Dear god, this post is long. I even chopped it down. I'm sorry. I'm better at editing someone else's work...]

Dear Jenny,

Over a year two years ago, I was promoted to a management position at my former company. As a result of this, I got a surprising number of book recommendations regarding all kinds of management and business practices. At first, it seemed helpful, but then I was... kind of resentful. I mean, I've got a giant pile of books that I want to read and now I've got a fresh pile of books to read about... work? Ugh.

(Side note: One of my colleagues actually handled this beautifully and would cite specific chapters from a book she recommended that would directly relate to management challenges that I was having. Now that is a generous and genuinely helpful way to recommend a management book!)

One of the books recommendednay, literally pressed into my handswas a dog-eared copy of Lincoln on Leadership. Our neighbor loves this book so much that he carries it around in his backpack all of the time and re-reads it every year. He loaned me his copy and insisted that it was the best management book that I would ever read.

Honestly, I wasn't that into it  I had a stack of other books piling up from colleagues  buuuut... he's my neighbor and he has just loaned me his very favorite book. So I added it to my TBR list on this blog, knowing that if I committed publicly to reading it, I would [most likely] actually do it (unlike the 10-15 other management books gathering the electronic equivalent of dust on my Kindle right now...)

Of course, as we both know... I am no longer a manager! But I had committed to reading this book. So I did it. My change in employment status + my general intolerance for non-fiction made this book a bit of a slog, but I did it, and I made some notes, so lemme flip through them and jot down some thoughts for ya here...

The premise of the book is: "Lincoln was a great leader and here's why (and how)." The author compiled a bunch of information on Lincoln and grouped together some examples which showcased Lincoln's leadership philosophies and practices.

Note: Given that my neighbor's copy was so precious to him (meaning I was likely to drop it directly into a puddle), I immediately bought the Kindle version of this book to read and take notes in. My notes give "Kindle Locations" for citations.

One misstep:
For the most part, I found this book interesting and useful. But there was this oooooone little thing that bugged me: At the end of each chapter, there's a bullet-pointed summary of the chapter's big takeaways. That's terrific -- great to have those later when the narrative has faded from our minds.

However, the author wrote this in the Introduction: "The reader will note, by the way, that certain Lincoln 'principles,' cited at the end of each chapter, will not have been introduced previously in the chapter narrative. In all cases, these new principles derive from actual Lincoln quotes relevant to the chapter’s theme."

I'm going to call BS on this. There were several times when I reviewed the "Principles" at the end of the chapter and thought, "Waaaaait a minute... when, exactly, did you bring up that notion?" Such a strange choice and negated a lot of credibility.

Having said that... there were also a lot of great messages in this book...

Hiring takes a long time
"Contemporary leaders who experience difficulties finding the right chief subordinate can take comfort in the knowledge that at this point in the Civil War, Lincoln had spent more than two and a half years searching for an aggressive general who could do the job." [1611]

This actually did make me feel pretty good! We would spend months interviewing and hiring a single candidate. And that was so exhausting that, if they didn't turn out to be a good fit, we wouldn't want to get rid of them because... gah. Go back to the beginning?! I always felt like it was better to cut our losses and start over (because managing a "bad fit" was SO exhausting) but most did not agree with me. So Lincoln's my man -- sometimes it takes years to find the right candidate for the job!

It's all just "news"
"By today’s standards, the moniker 'Honest Abe' might be considered pretentious, even contrived. But the fact is that leaders who tell their subordinates the truth, even when the news is bad, gain greater respect and support for ideas than their less virtuous counterparts." [732]

I always say, "There is no 'good news' or 'bad news' -- there is just 'news.' So let's just focus on how we're going to deliver it." This concept is not at all popular, either at work or in personal lives, but shit. The news has got to be delivered. Taking care with messaging also lessens the "bad news" blow. For instance, when people left (either voluntarily or not) my workplace, no one wanted to announce it ("But that's bad news!") But without announcements, people got waaaaaay more freaked out when colleagues suddenly "disappeared" (or seemed to). If you just treat it like what it is (news) and handle it accordingly, you can go a long way towards neutralizing the negative reaction to the news.

Let's get together
"Frequently, getting people together can avoid destructive thinking that tends to build on people’s misgivings and apprehensions about others and their departments." [1276]

So true. I witnessed this time and again at work. Once people decide to start complaining about another person or department's work, it just snowballs. But if you get people together (and keep getting them together), that's the way to overcome those hurdles. This is especially true when groups are geographically distant from one another. 

Kinda painful...
"After all, the most important asset an organization has is its employees." [514]

After what happened with my former company, re-reading that quote is a bit of a kick in the gut...
especially because we went from being a company that did feel that way to be a company that did not. Ugh.

"In business, for example, new CEOs often take the reins of a struggling corporation by instituting massive layoffs without concern for the welfare of employees. They concentrate solely on achieving bottom-line results. On the other hand, many executives are often afraid to take decisive action for fear of adversely impacting people. In either case, too much focus on one principle over the other usually results in failure. Lincoln, however, knew it was important to do both." [2174] 

I have witnessed both of those scenarios now (the blind cutting and the blind keeping of dead wood) and neither are good. Lincoln knew what he was talking about!

"Rather than inhibiting progress or sapping energy, innovative thinking actually increases an organization’s chances of survival. With today’s technology changing so rapidly, modern corporations simply must be able to respond and innovate. This is particularly true of the computer industry, for example, where today’s greatest, most advanced invention is often tomorrow’s dinosaur." [1670]

Our company was the worst at innovation. We started with a fantastic product and then we just continued to develop that single product for 19 years. Over time, we had innovators join the company, but when they discovered that their ideas were going nowhere, they would leave.

It's not just demoralizing on a personal level ("I can't get anything done around here/my company does not respect my ideas"), but also on a larger company level ("Holy hell. This place is never going to succeed!" <-- Fact.)  I honestly have no idea how this concept was so foreign at my place of work, but it was nice (if painful) to see it spelled out here.

On this, I disagree:
"Leadership often involves parenting, and Lincoln’s fatherly tendencies aided him in his position as president. The organization is the family; the leaders is the head of the family. Consequently, leaders often nurture and guide subordinates much as parents do children." [646]

No. Nonononono. I think "nurturing [the career of] and guiding" subordinates is correct, but I think that can be done in a non-parental way. I find the concept that one needs to "parent" their subordinates to be both condescending to the employees and f'ing exhausting for the managers. 

However, I do agree with this thought along the same lines:

"Lincoln also tempered his unusually intense drive to achieve with an equally strong capacity to care."[2173]

I think you can have empathy and compassion for people and still not treat them as your child. Maybe it's easier to slip into a parental role (I've certainly had some managers who did do that [which I hated]) but saying that it's supposed to be that way (in the above quote) is never going to hold water with me.

I also learned a bunch of other stuff about Lincoln that you probably already know cause you live in Illinois, but I'm not going to list that here. I'll just say that I do feel slightly better educated as a result of reading this book, which is always nice. 

And... BOOM. (Two more to go!)


Completed: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Dear Jenny,

First, I will say this: this book has nothing to do with the movie of the same name. (That's the #1 question I got while reading it. Heh.)

Why did you pick this book?
This one, like Wolf in White Van was a book that I kept hearing about and running into (it was also on the 2015 ToB Long List).

I bought it at a great little bookstore in Harbor Springs, MI called Between the Covers (I'm sure you've been there, since your family vacations in HS) and I started reading it on the beach when I was there. When I got home, I put it on the TBR shelf where it sat for... well, yes, a long time. When I picked it up again, I had no idea what was going on, so I restarted it. This was the first of many times I said, "WTF?" while reading this book and then chuckled to myself saying, "Good title!"

I finished it a few months ago and have little recollection of it now, I must admit. Let's see what I've got...

Give a quick overview of the characters and plot. 
I just looked on Good Reads to get the synopsis and refresh myself on it and, first of all, just reading the book's description, I thought, "WTF?" and then I had to laugh at this question from a reader about the book: "Is this the start of a series of novels because this one did not have a logical conclusion?" Bwahahaha.

All right -- this description is scraped from Good Reads:
Three young adults grapple with the usual thirty-something problems—boredom, authenticity, an omnipotent online oligarchy—in David Shafer's darkly comic debut novel. 
The Committee, an international cabal of industrialists and media barons, is on the verge of privatizing all information. Dear Diary, an idealistic online Underground, stands in the way of that takeover, using radical politics, classic spycraft, and technology that makes Big Data look like dial-up. 
Into this secret battle stumbles an unlikely trio: Leila Majnoun, a disillusioned non-profit worker; Leo Crane, an unhinged trustafarian; and Mark Deveraux, a phony self-betterment guru who works for the Committee. 
Leo and Mark were best friends in college, but early adulthood has set them on diverging paths. Growing increasingly disdainful of Mark's platitudes, Leo publishes a withering takedown of his ideas online. But the Committee is reading—and erasing—Leo's words. On the other side of the world, Leila's discoveries about the Committee's far-reaching ambitions threaten to ruin those who are closest to her. 
And that description actually makes waaaay more sense than actually reading the book, because the way it happens is that you meet each of those three characters totally separately, in pretty long, convoluted chapters of their own and then sloooowly, they meet up and join into a single story line.

I'll admit that it took me awhile to get into the story... because the characters' chapters were each so long, when we got back to another one, I'd think, "Wait... what's going on with this person again?" but it was good, once they came together.

And the "come together" part is not covered at all in that description, but I'm not going to tell you about it cause it's a pretty fun read that I think you might enjoy and I don't want to spoil it. Also, I don't really remember the allll of the convoluted business very well. Ha!

What it is like to be in the “world” of this book?  How did you feel while reading this book?
The answer to both of these questions is that "WTF?" was a Very. Good. Title.  I'd say it's a real "thrill ride" of a book. Sometimes I get lost with dark/underground/spooky bad guys, but I was able to keep up with most of the weirdnesses in this one.

What’s something you thought the book did really well? How was it accomplished?
Bringing the three separate plot lines together. It took awhile to get there, but once they did, I was glad to have so much "back story" on each of the characters.

What is one thing that needs improvement in the book?
Maybe the mysterious ending. I don't think it "ruined" the book or anything, but it did feel a bit unfinished. But... sticking the landing is obviously difficult, as I don't think that most books do a very good job of it, honestly.

All right! Time for a bonus/think-y question. Not sure if I'm going to be able to pull quotes for this, but I'll take:

Tone/Mood/Theme: what is the author's attitude toward the subject of the book and the emotions that surround the story? 
The author was totally going for a feeling of "WTF?" the whole time, and he nails that. Weird secret groups, impossible scenarios, changing people's identities, remote hideouts, etc. So I think his attitude was "this is going to be crazy!" and he definitely does that.

Overall, it was a fun read. It's hard to write an in-depth review of "fun reads," but I read it, enjoyed it aaaaand... this post is DONE. Wheeeee!


Completed: Detroit: A Biography

Dear Jenny,

Read this a few months ago. Looks like the template is really for fiction books (do we need another for non-fiction, maybe?) so I'll just go on my own here...

Since moving to the Detroit area in 2012 (almost FIVE years ago, if you can believe it), I've been on a "learn more about Detroit/Michigan mission." So this book landed squarely into that realm.

As the subtitle says, this book is written as "a biography," so it goes back to the settling of Detroit, how the city grew, how and why it fell/is falling. In general, I struggle reading biographies and I must say that I struggled to read this book -- it was pretty dry.

And then there were small nits that detracted from the book as a legit information source.

For instance, the author called "ruin porn" "ruins porn":
A lot of neighborhoods have risen and fallen in Detroit, but none has been more emblematic than Brush Park. It is the visual center for "ruins porn," as locals refer to the unending stream of photographs of empty crumbling buildings. [63]
The "as locals refer" line just made me look this guy up. He's from Maine. He lives in LA. His time at the Detroit News is barely a footnote in his biography. It's a small nit, but come on. If you're going to use a "hip" term, make sure you get it correct. That, along with the dryness of the reporting, I think is because this guy is not a local and, honestly, I don't really get the impression he cares about Detroit at all. Which may not be a requirement for a "biography," but it sure makes for a less interesting read.

There were also what I would call some flat-out "Duh" moments:
A recent study published in the American Sociological Review charted the progress of more than four thousand children into adulthood, and concluded that those raised in poverty had a significantly lower chance of graduating high school, and, by extension, reaching long-term stability. [xiv] 
Oh, FFS. Really? You needed a study for that? How about this: Use the damned money for funding that study and spend it on education. Ugh. I know that's not the author's fault, but why even quote that dumb stat? Who are you even talking to?

And this complaint doesn't necessarily have to do with the book itself, but I do wonder what the author thought of this (if he even cared)....

I have the pBook, but I needed to burn through some books, so I got the aBook. I had some trepidation because the negative reviews say that the reader totally butchers local place names. But I thought, "Well, I can deal with that... there are some weird looking words here and some butchery is okay..." For instance, there is a street called "Gratiot." Detroiters say "Grasshit" [Wow. Never noticed the "shit" in there -- it's less noticeable when spoken aloud!] This narrator said "grah-tio" -- like... the French pronunciation. I expected that.

But THIS guy mis-pronounced "Michigander!" I mean... what?! (Hard to explain how, exactly, but he basically said the state name and then "der" at the end. Like: "Michigan-der" vs. "Michi-GANder" -- you the bird?!) That just seemed so avoidable. I mean, it's like... not knowing how to pronounce "Hoosier." Sure, it's an odd demonym, but there are only 50 damned states and you're a voice actor.

I guess I would say, as a primer -- like, for someone who truly knew nothing about Detroit (and maybe didn't really care that much), this book would be fine. As it turns out, my education is working and I already know a lot about Detroit! Go, me. For my money, I would recommend Detroit City is the Place to Be (re-reading my review, it seems like I wasn't crazy about that book, either, but I have thought a lot about it since reading it, which is a good sign). It's got some kind of radical ideas about how to "fix" Detroit, but I liked that. In this book, I just felt like there was a long list of wrong turns the city has taken (especially over the past century) and... hey! Looks like we're f'd.

I didn't expect this review to turn so negative, but looking back on my notes... yeah... I didn't really enjoy this book. I think I felt "responsible" for that at the time (like, "I don't like biographies, so that's on me") but looking back on these issues, the book itself had some fundamental problems.

From now on, I think I'm going to stick to reading books about Detroit that are by Detroiters. Or transplants, but certainly people who have some affiliation with the city.

Ok! Another one down! It's the fiiiiiinal coooountdoooown...


Completed: Housekeeping

As we skidded into the final days of 2016, we read our 4th and final book together of the year: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.

Overall impression: Lovely book and lovely writing. For a not-very-plot-driven book, it captured our attention and was basically un-put-downable.

One slight criticism, raised by Jenny: The narrator is supposed to be uneducated but her prose doesn't really indicate that.

Kelly argued that it does in many ways -- short sentences strung together like (randomly selected page here):
People came down to the water’s edge, carrying lamps. Most of them stood on the shore, where in time they built a fire. But some of the taller boys and younger men walked out on the railroad bridge with ropes and lanterns. Two or three covered themselves with black grease and tied themselves up in rope harnesses, and the others lowered them down into the water at the place where the porter and the waiter thought the train must have disappeared. After two minutes timed on a stopwatch, the ropes were pulled in again and the divers walked. [6]
As a quick rebuttal, Jenny opened to another random page and offered a passage like this one:
It is true that one is always aware of the lake in Fingerbone, or the deeps of the lake, the lightless, airless waters below. When the ground is plowed in the spring, cut and laid open, what exhales from the furrows but that same, sharp, watery smell. The wind is watery, and all the pumps and creeks and ditches smell of water unalloyed by any other element. At the foundation is the old lake, which is smothered and nameless and altogether black. Then there is Fingerbone, the lake of charts and photographs, which is permeated by sunlight and sustains green life and innumerable fish, and in which one can look down in the shadow of a dock and see stony, earthy bottom, more or less as one sees dry ground. And above that, the lake that rises in the spring and turns the grass dark and coarse as reeds. And above that the water suspended in sunlight, sharp as the breath of an animal, which brims inside this circle of mountains. [9]
Point made. But still... the language is so beautiful and the images are so evocative that these inconsistencies are forgiven.

We both agreed that the role and descriptions of the water in this book were incredible. One line about the water that Kelly highlighted (highlit?) was this one: "By evening the lake there had sealed itself over." [8] Just so spooky and lovely!

The term "housekeeping" evokes the idea of taking care of your family/spouse/children, but so much of this book is about women not being able to care for their sisters and what impact that has: Sylvie unable to take care of her sister (the girls' mother), who commits suicide. Our narrator Ruth, unable to care for her sister Lucille, who leaves home to find care elsewhere.

Finally, we spent some time dissecting the final, heart-breaking line of the book:
No one watching this woman smear her initials in the steam on her water glass with her first finger, or slip cellophane packets of oyster crackers into her handbag for the sea gulls, could know how her thoughts are thronged by our absence, or know how she does not watch, does not listen, does not wait, does not hope, and always for me and Sylvie. [219]
"This woman" is Lucille, Ruth's sister, sitting in a restaurant in Boston, waiting for a friend. The negatives in the sentence makes it kind of confusing, because this is speculation. Ruth is not really watching Lucille, but that does not mean that she is not thinking of them, waiting for them, hoping for them. The turn of "always for me and Sylvie" makes the reader understand that yes, yes she is waiting and hoping for them. Lovely and heartbreaking.

Further Reading
At the end of our discussion, we talked about "further reading" -- more about this author, the fact that she went 25 years between publishing this and her next work of fiction, etc. Here are a few links that give more insight, both to the book and to the author.

It was an "NEA Big Read" -- a lot of information on the book here, including discussion questions (like, "At the end of the novel, why do Sylvie and Ruthie take such an extreme step?" which is something that we discussed) and a pretty in-depth Bio.

Here's the NYT book review from 1981, when the book was released (damn, I love the Internet.)

Here's a conversation between President Obama and Marilynne Robinson (he named her book Gilead as one of his favorite books) where he basically interviews her, which is... pretty cool. This takes place in 2014. Interesting to read some of these observations, considering the recent election.

And here's an interview with her from January 2016 -- she's got some interesting opinions about the world. We might want to have a Book Chat just about Marilynne Robinson!

Completed: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Dear Jenny,

Gonna try the template here...

Why did you pick this book?
This was a re-read. I chose it this year because the number 42 features in the book and I was 42 for the majority of this year.

It's also required reading for nerds. I cannot tell you the number of times this book (and others in the series) are referenced when you work at a super-nerdy software company. Endlessly. For more examples of how stupid-nerdy these books are, check out this wikipedia entry (especially the epic examination of 42!) Even though I don't work in software anymore, I'm still a part of the Nerd World.

Give a quick overview of the characters and plot. 
As the book opens, Arthur Dent's house is about to be demolished to build a bypass. While he's protesting the demolition, his buddy Ford Prefect comes by and tells him that the world is about to end, so they go to the pub. [Kind of love that response, BTW!]

At the pub, Ford reveals that he's an alien, he's been living on earth for 15 years, and he's planning to hitchhike off before the planet gets demolished (to build a bypass, of course). He is a writer for the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (more on that "book" in a moment).

So they hop onto a passing ship and then get ejected from it, once identified as hitchhikers. Fortunately for them, another ship is in the area and picks them up [Yes, yes, the plot of this book is ridiculous. It's supposed to be. Stick with me here]. On board is Ford's distant semi-cousin, Zaphod Beeblebrox (who also happens to be the president of the universe), a hilariously depressed robot named Marvin, and a human woman named Trillian.

The five decide to go find the legendary planet, Magrathea, known for selling luxury planets. Once there, they meet Slartibartfast [this name makes me laugh very hard] who tells them about a supercomputer named Deep Thought that took 7.5 million years to determine that the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything is... "42." So then... what was the question? Another supercomputer was created to determine what the question was and that supercomputer was... Earth! Which, after 10 million years of calculating, was destroyed 5 minutes before it was about to deliver the question. Of course!

It turns out the beings that were behind all of this supercomputer building were mice. Coincidentally, Trillian's pet mice (who engineered her departure from Earth, knowing that it was going to be destroyed and that she would take them with her). They don't want to build another supercomputer/Earth and wait 10 million more years for the answer, so they decide they can just dissect Arthur's brain and find the pertinent information, since he was a part of Earth, so it's going to be in there. Which, of course, means killing Arthur.

So our little gang skedaddles on out of there and decides to head towards the Restaurant at the End of the Universe (which is also the name of the next book in the "trilogy") (which actually consists of five books... well, six now.) (Sort of.) (Which is the whole way these books go, ad infinitum!)

I'm not sure that was a "quick" overview. But that's the story!

What it is like to be in the “world” of this book?
Um... kooky? It's just so ridiculous. The mice created Earth. The fact that a ship just happens to come by at the right moment? The name Slartibarfast. Everything.

How did you feel while reading this book?
I said, "Oh, come ON!" a lot. I know why this book appeals to young nerds because a complete suspension of disbelief is required during every "But wait! This happens!" moment and I think younger people are, in general, more likely to accept ridiculousness.  But it's also pretty funny. I think it knows that it's ridiculous (check out those names) so it's also mocking itself.

I was also fucking AMAZED at Douglas Adams's prescience -- the "book" that is the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe is, basically, an iPad with Internet access. And this was published in 1979. It's defined as: "the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom" [2]. Physically, it is described as:
a device which looked rather like a largish electronic calculator. This had about a hundred tiny flat press buttons and a screen about four inches square on which any one of a million ”pages” could be summoned at a moment’s notice. It looked insanely complicated, and this was one of the reasons why the snug plastic cover it fitted into had the words Don’t Panic printed on it in large friendly letters. The other reason was that this device was in fact that most remarkable of all books ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The reason why it was published in the form of a micro sub meson electronic component is that if it were printed in normal book form, an interstellar hitchhiker would require several inconveniently large buildings to carry it around in. [17]
What the.....?! Seriously. 1979. Kinda nuts, right? I do remember being a kid and reading this book and thinking "That would be so GREAT to have!" I wonder if kids today enjoy this book as much as our generation did because now it's just "Sure -- of course you have an intergalactic iPad." But then?!

BTW: The entry for Earth is "Mostly harmless." This is an edit from its original entry of... "Harmless" [41]. Hilarious, right?

What’s something you thought the book did really well? How was it accomplished?
As much as I just complained about the unbelievable situations, it really is done well. One thing that helps with that is that Arthur Dent is basically saying, "WTF?" the entire time. He's a great straight man/foil to the craziness. He's sort of the voice of the reader. As the reader says, "Whaaaat?!" so does Arthur. So that really makes the ridiculousness more palatable. It knows it's crazy.

Hrm. Now I'm supposed to answer some of the "deeper" questions, buuuut... I'm pretty much done. This was a fun read. The plot is pretty basic -- when I thought back on it, I thought, "Oh, maybe I don't remember it all because I don't remember much" and then when I re-read it, I said, "Nope. Got all this." but the writing is humorous and the ridiculous situations are done very well.

Also, there are many MANY cultural references that were established in this book that live on today... for instance, the popular online translation service called Babelfish got its name from this book --  a Babel fish is a little creature that you put in your ear that can translate any language for you as soon as you hear it [39]. Nerd-ay!

All right! Six posts to go!


Friday, December 30, 2016

Completed: Transatlantic


I'm not even ashamed to admit that I looked at the 3 books I had left, booted one because it was too long (Master of the Senate, which I think has been on my list before. Maybe it's just time to give that one up?), and then when I saw the other 2 were almost the exact same length, I picked Transatlantic because the font was bigger and the spacing around the margins and between sentences was more generous. DESPERATE TIMES, KELLY.

Also, thought I'd give my suggested template a whirl:
Give a quick overview of the characters and plot. 
Following about 150 years of history through the eyes of folks visiting or from Ireland. In part 1, we meet 3 men who make the transatlantic trip to Ireland: the first two dudes to make the flight in like an airplane with no instruments, Frederick Douglass!, and Senator Mitchell who helps broker the peace accords for Northern Ireland. In parts 2 and 3, the lineage of women descended from a housemaid who meets Frederick Douglass and goes to America shortly after. Their lives bump into those of the male historical figures. 

Why did you pick this book? 
I liked his first novel, Let the Great World Spin, which was one of the first "real" books I remember reading after figuring out Darius was old enough that I didn't need to be constantly supervising him. 

How did you feel while reading this book?
Honestly, the second half of the book, the lives of the women were so much more interesting that I wondered why the framing device of the men were necessary. 

What’s something you thought the book did really well? How was it accomplished?
What is one thing that needs improvement in the book?
Going back to the question above: the "interconnectedness of everything" felt more forced in this book than it did in Let the Great World Spin. Perhaps the author was trying to make a point about meaning in men's lives being formed by their political actions, while women's lives are made meaningful by family? I don't know. It kind of irked me---both the contrived puzzle-like nature of the plot, and the ingrained sexism that prioritizes men's political achievements as a lens for framing history.  

Any symbolism­ in the text that you found meaningful?
Obviously the transatlantic crossings--by boat, by plane, alone, together, leaving family behind, etc. It was meditative in that way, lots of beautiful description about the strange arcs of a family, and of a life. 

Writing style­: Is the writing style simple or complex? How does this affect the story? 
One thing that is usually pretty interesting with multiple narrative characters is how the author makes them all sound or think differently. I thought McCann did nice work here. The section with Mitchell, for example, is short and choppy. It just "sounds" different than other sections, and I found myself wondering how much research and work must have done to achieve that. 

Tone/Mood/Theme: what is the author's attitude toward the subject of the book and the emotions that surround the story? 
I think one thing I did like about this novel is that many of the narratives were from characters who were older. As I get older, I appreciate novels that look at the span of a life. I quite liked the author's writing style and found his prose very moving, especially as the women dealt with the sorrows and tragedies of their lives. 

Overall: I enjoyed it. It was a solid novel.

Completed: Women in Clothes

Dear Jenny,

This book! Oh, this book! 

When you gave me this book, I initially thought, "Really? A 500+ page book of what? Short stories or some shit?" I know -- that's bitchy. I admit it. So I added it to my TBR list so I knew that I would pick it up, rather than letting it fester on my shelf forever.  (See? That's love. :)

And then... I began to read this book. And I loved this book. I read some of it every day for weeks and I was genuinely sad when I was done with it. Like, crushed. "Wait. What? There's no more?"

I have given this book to several friends who, I can tell, have the "Really? 500+ pages of what? Short stories or some shit?" reaction and I just hope that they can get past it long enough to read the first story/vignette/chapter/etc. so they, too, will get hooked.

What makes this book so f'ing great? Rock-damned-solid EDITING. 

I mean, the content is terrific, but these women took SO MUCH content and then grabbed only the very best of it and compiled it so beautifully and artfully into this book. Lemme splain. (No. There is too much. Lemme sum up. Heh.)

The authors' names on the front of this books are "Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavitz, Leanne Shapton & 639 others." 639 others! Whaaaa---? These women sent this survey about fashion and to over 600 women from all walks of life, all corners of the world, etc. 

And when I say "Survey" (survey questions are given at the front of the book) I'm talking over 100 questions. And good questions with good follow-up questions. Like: "Do you think you have taste or style? Which is more important? What do those words mean to you?" (11) or "Tell us about something in your closet that you keep, but never wear. What is it, why don't you wear it, and why do you keep it?" (12) 

And then they spent years choosing the best of the best of the responses and compiling this book. 

But wait! There's more! It's not just a bunch of survey answers, slapped together. Oooo.... noooo! It is a dissection of all of this information and a strategic re-organization of all of the data in the best possible ways to make each vignette the most interesting thing it can be.

What do I mean? Well, there area a bunch of chapters that take out survey responses that pertain to one single topic. For instance: "Handmade" [249] -- there are only 13 responses here that deal with the topic (remember -- they sent this to over 600 people!) so you KNOW these are the very best. That, my friend, is some heroic editing.

There is also a bunch of art and art projects throughout. Like... six strangers each wearing each other's favorite outfits [157] No shit. It's wonderful (Really. Just that project is worth reading this book!) (Molly Ringwald is one of the six strangers. I also loved that). There are also running features (women reporting on compliments they have gotten -- little snippets throughout the book that say "Compliment" at the top, then the item in question and then the story). And photographs --- oh, the photographs! ("Send a photograph of your mother before she had children and tell us what you see" [331] So great!) And interviews! And essays! And a fantastic well-organized (by category) TOC at the front, so you can easily find all the stuff in the book!

And the contributions are from all kinds of people from everywhere around the world. So many different cultural views. Transgender women and men, famous women, not-so-famous women. Heavy women, thin women. Old women, young women. Oh, you get the picture. And in the back of the book, a sentence or two about every. single. contributor. [500] So great! 

So... I just took this picture of my book. Each of those flags represents something I wanted to tell you about when I was reading it. But just flipping through it again to write this review made me keep saying, "Oh, and there was this awesome thing! And THIS awesome thing!" And... you know... just read it yourself.

I left it on the dining room table and I read 10-20 pages over coffee every morning. It was the BEST start to my day the entire time I did it. Maybe I need to do it again -- I know I missed a lot. Also... sheesh. Gotta grab the good things where we can right now, amiright?

Can you tell I loved this book? 
Thanks for giving it to me -- I'm sorry I doubted you. xoxo


PS -- More cool! There's a list of all of the questions on the Women in Clothes website with links, so you can see all of the responses that they got. 

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Homestretch, baby


As we round the corner into the New Year, I offer this as a little incentive. Lol.

Okay, I've been thinking about the template idea, and I actually like the way the 8th grade teachers frame things for their students, which is with framing questions. 

This first set of questions (you don't have to do them all) are summary and overall critique.
Give a quick overview of the characters and plot. 
Why did you pick this book? 
What it is like to be in the “world” of this book? 
How did you feel while reading this book?
What’s something you thought the book did really well? How was it accomplished?
What is one thing that needs improvement in the book?

Pick one or maybe two. Provide at least one quote/sample of the text to illustrate your idea. 
Any symbolism­ in the text that you found meaningful?
What is the structure of novel: ­how is the plot built?
Writing style­: Is the writing style simple or complex? How does this affect the story? 
Point of view­: Who is the narrator? How does that impact your understanding of character?
Tone/Mood/Theme: what is the author's attitude toward the subject of the book and the emotions that surround the story? 


Last thought--what do you think of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge? Here's what I like about this format: it seems more forward thinking in that we'd be searching for books that fit the criteria rather than the TBR pile, which is often about looking backwards? I don't know. Maybe we can narrow or make our own list?


Friday, November 25, 2016

Completed: The Fall of Rome


Well, that "four more weeks to go and why haven't I read more of these books" panic struck so I decided to sit down and work on one of these TBR books. We should really think about how we want to handle 2017...I do really look forward to the months we have a common read (speaking of which, we should talk about our December book soon! ), so maybe we should do MORE of that? Add some graphic novels and comics into the mix?

Anyways, I bought The Fall of Rome on the recommendation of a friend of mine from grad school. It's about the intersecting lives of 2 teachers and one student at a fancy prep school, and my friend thought I might like it since it's an exploration of how black students and faculty members wither or survive in mostly-white institutions.

I feel bad because I'm going to give this one a pretty quick review (the end of the year reviews tend to be a little more perfunctory). I liked this book a lot. It's set an exclusive all boys boarding school in Connecticut in the late 90s.   There's 3 narrators: Jerome Washington, a Latin teacher and the only black faculty member at the school; Jana Hansen, a newly divorced teacher; and Rashid Bryson, a young black kid new to the school and reeling from a family tragedy.

It's a good read! The drama of the book is almost all internal: how do people internalize their own tragedies and traumas? And what happens when those lives intersect and bump into other damaged people? The author does a great job of making each narrator sympathetic when you're in his/her chapter. But the tour de force character is the older teacher, Jerome Washington. He's someone I both understood and felt really sympathetic towards, but he was so repressed and tortured that I also wanted him to get his ass kicked. Jerome's been hiding from the world at that boarding school, and the appearance of the fierce and fearless Rashid brings everything to the surface. My one mild critique of the book is that since the characters struggles are all so internal, the relationships between them seem less *real* than I would like. I don't really think it's a weakness of the text, but just a natural consequence of a book where all the conflicts are internal. Even big plot points are really just fuel for the inner struggles. For example, Jana and Jerome have a brief weekend affair, but it's mostly fuel for contemplation. There's not much actual fallout from the event, even though Jana comes to deeply regret it: not because she's sad about the sex, but rather because she realizes she's disappointed in Jerome as a person.

One thing that's always interesting to me is how writers portray school, but honestly, the setting is just a metaphor for America: it's a place that's stuck in its ways, and afraid of the future, wondering how these brash young folks will challenge and change us. It's a nice little weekend read.


Saturday, October 8, 2016

Completed: About a Mountain


Your "Holy Shit, It's September!" post has prompted me to catch up on some reading and writing here. By looking at my list of books I've read in 2016, you'd think I haven't been reading at all. Not true! I've just been reading romance novels, and I don't keep track of them. And I'm fine with it!

Anyways, I picked up About a Mountain a few years ago when my friend Lori mentioned it. It seemed it would fit right into my tiny little nuclear niche because it's about the plan to turn Yucca Mountain into a nuclear waste repository.

Honestly, this was sort of a weird one for me, mostly because it wasn't what I expected. I thought it would be a pretty straightforward examination of the Yucca Mountain site, and it was more like the philosophical stylings of the author when thinking about the mortality of humanity and of the Earth. So, although I did learn some about Yucca Mountain--how it came to be the site, the legion of problems with it, its unsuitability for long tern nuclear storage, the massive transportation problems of moving the entire nation's spent fuel there---it wasn't really as much as I would have liked. Instead, there were a lot of digressions, some of which were pretty interesting. By far, the best was the discussion of how a nuclear storage site could be "labeled" with appropriate signage so that future generations could recognize the danger without counting on language. Answer: carve Edvard Munch's The Scream into granite plates. Mmm'kay. That seems like it would work, actually.

Other parts of the book didn't work for me at all. For example, there was a whole other section that talked about how Vegas is the suicide capital of the world, and although I'm sure the author was going for some super interesting framing setting up the suicide of individuals as a metaphor for the suicide of humanity as a species...but really, it was pretty fucking tedious. Finally, the author was super into list-making as a rhetorical device. So when he talked about what would happen if a nuclear disaster hit Vegas, he described a list of what would be destroyed, over a couple of pages, and I get that he's hoping to create a cascading fear and realization of how it would all play out. But in 200 pages of text, he pulls this listing maneuver at least 20 times, and all it created in this reader was a cascading feeling of annoyance.

Meh. Not really the kind of nuclear read I'm interested in. Maybe it's because every nuclear book I've ever read creates that feeling of dread and dismay at humanity's stupidity all on it's own. Here, the author's attempt to hit me over the head with it just didn't work.


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Holy Sh*t! It is [almost] October!

Dear Jenny,

WHOA. What the what?! It seems like just yesterday that I wrote my Mid-year Status Report but that was, in fact, 3 months ago. And since that time... I have not made much progress. Eep!

So far this year, I have completed four books and read two more that still need posts (Same two that were on my list in June. Really. I am stalled out.) That means I have six books to read in the final three months of this year. Did I already say "Eep?" Yeah. Eep again.

Time for the time-honored tradition of... page-counting! But looking back to my post about this from last year... I am actually right on track for panic-page-counting in late September/early October. I guess that's part of being a life-long procrastinator -- forgetting all of the times that I've been in a Procrastination-induced Panic before. HA!

(Cause I've actually been in worse shape before, if you can believe it!)

So I'll start with booting my longest books: So long, Stones From the River! (For a third time... that one was also on the 2014 and 2015 lists. I'll bring ya back for one more year, SFtR but... we're not going past 2017 together.) Traffic also gets pushed.

Here's what's left to read, plus Hitchhiker's Guide (I loaned it to someone... not sure if/when I'll get that back) and Housekeeping (you and I are reading this together in December -- I have the eBook):

For a total of 1505 pages. There are 94 days left in the year, which leaves me at... 16 pages a day.

Which is NOT that many but... I just have not spent much time over the past few months reading books with my eyes and I'm kind of... out of the habit, if that makes sense? I have have listened to a ton of aBooks this year, but I have not done much traditional reading.

In fact, I may have to go ahead and listen to a few of these. Hitchhikers is narrated by Stephen Fry, so I bet that's terrific... yeah. I'm totally going to listen to that one. Heh.

I know this is a busy time of year for you, so no pressure. Buuut... how you doin'?


Sunday, August 21, 2016

Completed: Prayers for the Stolen


Oh, jury duty. The only good thing I can say about it is that I knocked another of my ToB books off of the list while I was sitting around doing nothing all day.

I didn't do a preview post for this because I ended up turning it around so fast. However, this book does hold a weird place of honor for me: it's the last book that I ever bought without quotation marks! It was early 2014, and I read a review of the book that made me interested in reading it. It's set in Mexico and about the impact of the drug wars on young women in Mexico...and it just sounded great. I think I even tried to add it to my ToB pile in 2015, but it wasn't officially old enough, so I put it on hold for another year.

At some point right after I bought it, I picked it up and was so pissed that it doesn't have quotation marks that I just put it right down. And it was then that I promised myself that I would always check before buying.

I think I added it back to the 2016 list because it's SHORT (about 200 pages!) and I was so annoyed that I bought it that I felt compelled to finish it and just get it out of my life. Lol. One more thing about my review...I finished the book while at jury duty and then abandoned the book right there in the jury duty room when I was finished. So...this review brought to you courtesy of my memory with no actual quotes. Which seems sort of ironic and funny.

I must say, I really wanted to like this book more than I did, but it just didn't work for me. Yes, obviously, the lack of quotation marks bugged the shit out of me on every page; but ultimately, but the plot and characterization were just too thin for me. The story is about a young teenage girl, Ladydi [Like Lady Diana, her mother named her that as a sort of reminder to herself about how shitty men are.] and what it's like to grow up in a country where men are either gone in the USA or gone because they are members of drug gangs.

In the first section, Ladydi is a young teenager in her village, worried about her friend Paula who has been stolen and mysteriously returned. The women and girls remaining are at the mercy of the remaining men. The mothers try and hide their daughters, and Ladydi and her friends all have these pits in the backyard where they hide out when they hear SUVs coming---Remember Paula? She and her mother didn't hear the SUVs coming and there was no time to hide.

In the second section, Ladydi goes to the nearest big city, Acapulco, to work as a nanny for a wealthy family. But the family is gone and has been killed, so she mostly just hangs out with the housekeeper and sleeps with the gardner.

In the third section, Ladydi has been framed for murder and is a Mexican prison until her Mother comes for her. There, she finds out more details about a connection between the murdered family and her friend Paula.

I don't know. I actually want to blame Toni Morrison for my dislike of Prayers for the Stolen. Morrison is *the fucking master* of a kind of lyrical exploration of what it's like to be a woman in the face of great obstacles, where the link between what is known and unknown is so tenuous. I don't that Prayers for the Stolen was terrible (well. the lack of quotation marks is terrible. lol), it just didn't seem nearly as sophisticated, smart, insightful, lyrical, or beautiful as Beloved.   I know that's not fair! But it's how I felt. I guess I just want more magical realism, or more adherence to a plot that makes sense, but this just seemed to want it both ways. It was the part where she went to jail where the book really lost me---I didn't buy it as a plot twist and then I was just reading for it to be over. Ladydi was in jail because our author wanted her to be there, not because the narrative put her there in a convincing way. I'm not sure it makes sense, but whatever. This book was just thoroughly meh for me.

The good news--I'm now done with 7 of my 12, and I'm feeling like I'm in good shape for the back end of 2016.


Monday, August 15, 2016

Completed: The Most Dangerous Book


There's something about this book that really was peak-nerd for me: reading a book about another book. Lol.

As you know, I read Ulysses in college and was super into it. It just hit every single one of my book-loving bells. I took a class on James Joyce, another just on Ulysses, and also wrote my senior thesis about it. You asked about reading it again, and it's actually been on my mind a lot.  I think it would take the whole year, and ideally, we'd find someone else reading it online or podcasts, etc. It's such a communal effort and I think it might be something worth checking out---with structure and support, we could definitely come up with a Ulysses in 2017 plan. There might be a woman in my book club who's interested, and it might also be fun to have a few more people...Let's talk about it.

There are so many books published about Ulysses, but this one got a lot of attention for being approachable and aimed at a general audience. The subject of the book isn't so much Ulysses itself, but rather the charges of obscenity against the book and ways in which it was censored. As it turns out, the post office plays a really big role in censorship. Because most things were mailed, the post office had the power to censor works they thought were obscene. The whole tangled story of how the post office would find--and burn!--obscene materials was fascinating. I definitely felt like I fell into one of the historical rabbit holes where you learn a bunch of really weird shit about the ins and outs of American government.

The other big part of the book detailed the struggles of many people to bring the book to publication. Obviously, there are descriptions of Joyce's struggles with his health, eyesight, and alcoholism (although I don't know if that word was every used, it certainly seems accurate). The stress and strain on Joyce is well-documented, and I actually skipped a two page description of an eye-surgery. Ee. But we also meet Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare & Co, Ezra Pound, a New York financier, John Quinn, and many others who tried to publish Ulysses. Joyce must have been a real son of a bitch to work with, that's for sure.

The book ends with the trial that finally makes the work legal by declaring it a classic and therefore not subject to obscenity laws.

I'm not really doing this review justice. It was a great book! I dog-eared lots of interesting passages about obscenity, modernism, the role of the modern courts, and the meaning of art. But for whatever reason, perhaps the panic of knowing I only have one more week off, and would love to knock another book off my list, I'm just going to wrap it up and try moving along to the next thing.


Sunday, August 7, 2016

Completed: Wolf in White Van

Dear Jenny,

Oh boy.

I finished this book several months ago and I totally burned through it. Sooo... I don't remember much. Just consulted my pal Google and was all "Oh, yeah! Oh, yeeeah!"

Since I didn't do a preview post on this one, I'll start with that. Then let's see what else I can tell you.

You know how sometimes a book keeps coming up in your life over and over again? This was that book for me in late 2014/ early 2015. I heard it reviewed/raved about on a podcast, then another podcast. Then I read a review (notable because I generally don't read/keep up with book reviews) and spotted it on the 2015 ToB long list. When I walked into my favorite local bookstore in back in Alameda, it was right on the front table. The cover is awesome so... I bought it.

It also sounded like a neat premise and looked like a well-written book. And it was! The structure of this narrative is a large part of what makes it so great. But it's also what caused me to burn through it so quickly (I had to get to the bottom of this story) which is why I don't remember it very well.

At first, it's sort of difficult to understand what's going on -- we get some bits and pieces: the narrator, Sean, has had a severely disfiguring injury; he runs some sort of text-based role-playing game through the mail (the actual mail -- I loved this part); and there is a court case against him that is quickly dismissed. (Note: I have just delivered you that information far more directly than I received it.)

The rest of the book basically builds on all of that information -- everything is related and explanations are slowly revealed by going back in time, finishing with the incident that cause his disfigurement. As spoileriffic as we are around here, I'm not going to spoil it because I genuinely recommend this book and part of what makes it good is uncovering the truths including, and especially, the final truth about what happened to Sean's face.

There are many poignant moments, especially when Sean encounters others and their reactions to his disfigurement. Little kids are generally more accepting, but ask more questions. Many people just don't know how to react and end up stumbling over themselves. Sean's empathy in these situations is well-written and heart breaking. The author is a songwriter and his mastery of the language shines throughout.

There is a quote from Patrick deWitt on the back of my copy: "Beautifully written and unexpectedly moving" and I agree with that 100%. As I flipped through it again to write this post, I thought, "I need to read this again." And I'm not much of a re-reader, so that says a lot.


Completed: Beloved



This year, as we looked at our *read-together* books, (PS. I still love that we're doing some books together! Good idea, past Jenny and Kelly!) we talked about choosing something we both wanted to re-read. Toni Morrison's Beloved has been on my list for a while. From our vague memories, we had both read this in college. I don't remember much about that first read, but I definitely remember reading it again in my mid-20s and it feeling like a completely new and different experience. I was actually kind of...scared?...of reading it again post-motherhood.

I'm going to sketch out a few of the big themes from our Skype discussions. Feel free to jump in and add!

Yep, Still Great. 
One question that's always on my mind when re-reading a book I loved is, "Will I still think it's as great as I did back then?" I don't think that there was any question for either of us that this book retained it's rather awesome power. You specifically noted her complete control of a dazzling number of literary styles. This book is powerful, disturbing, and an absolute tour de force. We were doing two things the entire time: reading it, and marveling at it.

Still So Relevant
Since it's 2016 and slavery ended 150 years ago, you'd think Americans would have better knowledge of the basic facts of slavery. Alas, as we discovered last week, lots of people were really upset to have it pointed out that slaves built the White House. Maybe more people ought to read this book, or other slave narratives. This led to an interesting conversation about when it should be taught in school. Lots of high school kids read it, but I can't even comprehend the scaffolding it would take to teach this book to teenagers and to do it well. HOWEVER, if they don't read it in high school, maybe they never will? The unrelenting horrors of slavery, both physical and emotional, are so terribly wrought in this book---and that's what makes it so vital.

[Kelly here: We also talked about how it could be a good book for high school students to read because of all of the different writing styles used. How she sometimes uses obscure language and sometimes it's so direct. Repeating phrases to emphasize certain themes, and the use of poetry within the prose. Buuuuut... it would have to be a pretty advanced class and definitely older students.]

The writing
There was so much here to parse: we were both impressed by the language, but also the many styles that she harnessed in the novel. We spent a lot of time talking about the scenes that were deliberately opaque -- both of us described scenes that we read and re-read. Those scenes made us work very hard to read the text carefully -- there is no "skimming" over the horrific events in this book.

However, at other times, the language was deliberate, almost plain. The scenes where Sethe kills her child are described in both ways -- the first time it's described, it's (mostly) from the point of view of "the four horsemen." It's opaque and abstruse and difficult to understand -- the horror of the scene is hidden from the reader, only dawning on us gradually as we piece together all the previous hints and clues. Here it is from schoolteacher's perspective... no details about what has actually happened, and far more focus on the "lost value" of what they had come to claim:

"Right off it was clear, to schoolteacher especially, that there was nothing there to claim. The three (now four—because she'd had the one coming when she cut) pickaninnies they had hoped were alive and well enough to take back to Kentucky, take back and raise properly to do the work Sweet Home desperately needed, were not. Two were lying open-eyed in sawdust; a third pumped blood down the dress of the main one—the woman schoolteacher bragged about, the one he said made fine ink, damn good soup, pressed his collars the way he liked besides having at least ten breeding years left. But now she'd gone wild, due to the mishandling of the nephew who'd overbeat her and made her cut and run." [175]
But later, when Stamp Paid tries to describe it to Paul D (and fails, really, to deliver the news directly to him), Toni Morrison takes the reader aside and spells it all out for us, quite directly and explicitly:
"Stamp looked into Paul D's eyes and the sweet conviction in them almost made him wonder if it had happened at all, eighteen years ago, that while he and Baby Suggs were looking the wrong way, a pretty little slavegirl had recognized a hat, and split to the woodshed to kill her children." [186]
[Kelly here: We discussed these technique changes quite a bit. It felt like Morrison wanted us to work hard to parse scenes so that we're really immersed in them -- to really spend time with the action and get the full impact. But juuuuust in case we didn't get it... she's going to go ahead and make sure we really understood.]

Memory vs. Rememory
The difficulty of the text seems related to one of the major themes of the book: the role of memory or rememory, as Sethe calls it. They don't actually seem to be the same thing. In looking back over the notes from our conversation, it strikes me that the difference may be that "memory" is something that is active. We create and examine our own memories. But in Beloved, rememory is passive, it's something that crashes down upon a person, a flood or tide that takes over. Sethe doesn't want to remember what happened or what she did, and those rememories are just fragments that she doesn't really want to examine or claim. Rememory, then, is partial or incomplete. It's the terrible things we turn away from when they come to mind.

[Kelly here: I read something that said "re-memoring involves remembering memories," which I thought was an interesting take on it. Meaning that sometimes memories are forgotten and then they come back to us. Paul D locked his memories up in "that tobacco tin buried in his chest where a red heart used to be. Its lid rusted shut." [86] which, of course, eventually opens back up on him. And when Sethe talks about her rememories, she says that that memories (in this case, she is referring specifically to places) still live on, even after they are gone...
"I was talking about time. It's so hard for me to believe in it. Some things go. Pass on. Some things just stay. I used to think it was my rememory. You know. Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it's not.  Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it's gone, but the place -- the picture of it -- stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. [...]
Then Denver says: "If it's still there, waiting, that must mean that nothing ever dies."
And Sethe says: "Nothing ever does." [44]
And, of course, Beloved come back or... never died? Or perhaps her memory manifests herself because of Sethe's rememory of her? Oh, boy. I feel like I have just fallen into an rabbit hole or the movie Inception.  I'm not really giving this thought full justice. Just more "Whoa" moments.]

Magical Realism
We spent a lot of time talking what was "real" in this book. Obviously, the biggest question was about the young girl that arrives, the ghost of the girl that Sethe killed in the shed. Is she real? Can we know? Does it matter? Why has she taken the form she did? Why are her powers sometimes small but nevertheless terrifying? What happens to her? Is she really gone for good? I don't know that we came to much of a conclusion, but it was interesting to see how both of our points of view changed as we continued to read.

[Kelly here: This led to other talk of what is real and what is not. After we read the birth scene in the boat, I said, "Is Amy real?" We don't really know -- she seems unlikely (a random kooky white girl who happens to show up and help Sethe give birth?) but we only have Sethe's story to go by. This led you to observe that all escapes in the book really are metaphors because... what is the likelihood of any escape from slavery happening at all? (and even if you physically escape, you could never actually escape) Paul D and his entire chain-gang swimming under the mud, Sethe encountering Amy -- these are both fantastical stories. Because the idea that a slave could escape from slavery is fantastical, right?]

Community vs. Individual
The first two times I read this, I was overwhelmed by Sethe's past. This time around, I was so heartbroken for her present. Her loneliness and the way she had been cut off from the community were just wrenching. Denver paid that price, too. I found her isolation to be devastating. The book shows how we close ourselves off out of guilt and shame, which further isolates us from people who might help.

[Kelly here: When the community does finally help, part of it is their own guilt and shame that brings them to Sethe's aid. A woman named Ella leads the party because, "She had delivered, but would not nurse, a hairy white thing, fathered by 'the lowest yet." It lived five days never making a sound. The idea of that pup coming back to whip her too set her jaw working..." [305] Seems like she had a rememory of her own that brought her to help Sethe.]

This is not a story to pass on
You pointed out the many different ways to read this sentence. First, that it's impossible for a reader to skip or skim any parts of the book. One thing I tell my students about poetry vs. prose is that in a poem, every word matters. You can't *skip* anything. That's true of Beloved, too. Nothing can be passed over or skipped. Morrison wants us to fully engage and read every word.

Second, there's no way to read this book and forget Sethe and her courage, determination, or failures. Once you've read her story, it's with you.

But finally, a reminder that this is not the entire story of slavery. This is not *a* story -- there are many, many stories. We can't know the full extent and horrors of slavery. And yet, we have passed on and have been so afraid to look at the truth. This book forces us to examine the true cruelties of slavery and how its influence, like a ghost, haunts us all.


Friday, August 5, 2016

Jenny's Book 6.16: The Most Dangerous Book


A return of the preview post, albeit a brief one, and a summer update. Also, a bit of a panic moment for me, since it's August, and this is only my 6th book, I'm more than a little behind.

The Most Dangerous Book
I picked this up when it came out a year or so ago, you may remember my love of James Joyce from college. I keep thinking that I should actually reread  Ulysses now that I'm done with grad school. In the meantime, this is a pretty interesting story of how it was brought to publication and the ways in which is was suppressed for being pornographic. I'm about a third through it and hope to finish it soon and get myself back on track.

Categories were different than a typical bookstore!

What I've REALLY been reading this summer
Romance. Romance. Romance.

You know the story, of course, of how I discovered a bag of remaindered romance novels in my Grandma's basement when I was in middle school. I used to get bored at her house,...and look at this big bag of books. Lol. I would sneak them out of her house and smuggle them home. Good times. I still remember some of those plots. Ever since, I've had a steady and abiding love for the romance novel. To me, it's like reading a chick flick: beautiful people fall in love and live happily ever after. My romance reading almost perfectly correlates to my stress level. I am always reading *something*, but if there's a lot going on, it's likely to be the fun, breezy awesomeness of romance. This past year at work and finishing grad school was VERY STRESSFUL, and all of June and July I detoxed with romance. It was fabulous.

Best bathroom in a store..ever!
I've never kept track of my romance reading, mostly because I read them so fast, or I reread them, or I start something and never finish them (I only use my Chicago public library card to check out romance novels from Overdrive)...but I was just updating my book list, and it looks like I haven't read at all this summer! Trust me, I've read plenty---PLENTY OF KISSING, THAT IS. (Actually, lots more than kissing these days. They're *way* sexier than they used to be---which makes the whole idea of Ulysses being pornographic even more entertaining.)

That leads me to probably my favorite book thing I did this summer. When I was in LA for a conference, I took the time out to visit The Ripped Bodice, the only romance brick and mortar bookstore in the entire country! And, Kelly, it was the best thing ever. The space was welcoming and friendly, and it just felt like this magical *woman* place where no one would judge me for my romance-reading. I only wish it was in Chicago so I could go there more often. The store has two owners (they're cousins with a guy I did TFA with---he posted their kickstarter to FB, which is how I found out about it!), and when one of them checked me out, I asked how business was...she laughed and said, "it's great! If anyone's buying lots of books, it's romance readers." No kidding, all you have to do is take a look at my Kindle to see the truth in that statement.


Sunday, July 10, 2016

Completed: Excellent Sheep


I never wrote up a preview post for Excellent Sheep, but I'll just give you a quick overview of how this came to be on my shelf. The HOW it ended up there is pretty easy: My friend Liz is a college counselor, and she and I talked about reading this book together a few years ago when it came out...but then things fell by the wayside and I never got around to it.

The WHY for this book is pretty obvious by just glancing at the subheading (which, come on, dude, get ahold of yourself!) says it all about why it would be of interest in my particular field: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. The question of whether or not kids are prepared for life and college is pretty relevant to my current line of work because of the school I'm at and the families we serve. Even then, the word "elite" makes me cringe, but this is definitely a  book that is marketing itself to a particular class of people. Whatever.

Basic premise of the book: Super rich parents are churning out kids who are automatons who only want achievements that are determined by their parents, and they are unable to think for themselves. They are afraid of failure and don't know how to take risks. They've been taught that achievement is the only thing that matters.

My thoughts on this book are pretty muddled, honestly. But that's probably because the book itself is pretty messy. My biggest complaint is that the author doesn't seem to have that much control over himself---he is constantly shifting the audience he's addressing. At times, he addresses young people directly, urging them to think for themselves and do what they want. But it's such a bizarre fiction. No *kid* is going to read this book! It's all finger wagging and smugness. I mean, how could any kid take seriously the "don't worry so much about where you go to college" from a guy who works at the Ivy League?!?! Then there are the times it seems his real audience are these controlling, wealthy parents---but even then, are they reading this book? They don't want to hear what they're doing is wrong. If a parent agreed with the premise of this book, they probably would have no reason to read it! And if a parent disagreed with the premise, they'd never bother with it. It's preachy! I honestly think the *real* audience for this book are for the faculty of exclusive colleges. It's sort of this back-slapping reassurance that parents and society are the real bad guys, instead of having the faculty and administrators of exclusive colleges look at all the ways they enable and benefit from the college admissions arms race.

Honestly, this book was sort of annoying. It's not that it's bad---it's just that it's all rehashed. The question of what we're raising our kids to do is a fascinating and important conversation, but this book didn't feel like it made all that many interesting or even new points. I could name other books that cover the same territory and seemed more urgent, revelatory, or interesting.

Meh. Not too into this one.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Completed: Five Children and It


We read this book forever ago, so sorry for the late (and maybe brief) recap of our conversations. I
like when we have our little video conferences about the books we read, but it does make it harder to do the write up. I just feel like saying, "Remember that thing we talked about? Yeah. Wine!" Lol.

As you know, even though this book was one I owned for decorating purposes, you suggested we read it. How could it be that this children's classic, which had been in print for 100 years, is something we'd never heard of?! In fact, when I went to check it out from the Chicago public library on was already checked out! People read this thing, and then we did, too.

I think we were both worried about a hundred year old children's book, but I must say, this is probably the most pleasantly charming cold read I've ever done. The plot is pretty simple: five children go exploring one day and come across a magical creature at the beach (the It), and he has the power to grant one wish every day. Every chapter is a different wish---wishes that of course go completely wrong from what the wishers intend. However, as the sun set every day, the effect of the wish disappears. Those poor kids never seem to learn their lesson and just keep going back for more wishes, though!

Here's some things we noticed...

Childhood and parenting
Lots of differences in the portrayal of childhood. This just isn't a time when four kids would be allowed to wander all day and take a baby with them. There was also some pretty interesting observations about city kids vs. country kids that have also totally changed. It's hard not to wonder at how we think differently about what kids are capable of now. There's far more intellectual freedom and knowledge that kids have access to, but their physical freedom is totally curtailed.

However, there were some observations about parenting that seemed pretty much the same today. For example, both of us highlighted the same passage when we were reading: "You know, grown-up people often say they do not like to punish you, and that they only do it for your own good, and that it hurts them as much as it hurts you -- and this is really very often the truth" (53). I'm both entirely sure that all parents think that's true, and just as sure that no kid would believe it.

Humor, language, and slang
I know I for one was wondering if I would find the language abstruse or difficult. For example, when thinking of some old "children's classics" like Robinson Caruso or Treasure Island, I just would not want to read those. I didn't even want to read them when I was a kid. But this book was not at all difficult to read. In fact, there was a very funny, albeit dry and British, kind of humor in the book. At one point, one of the kids threatens another with, "smell my fist!"

You also noticed that they used the word "snarky" in the text, which seemed ahistorical. How could such a *now* word have been used back then? I looked it up in the OED, Nesbit is the first person to have used the word in print. Nice catch! (Although you'll notice that they note the first usage in 1906's Railway Children instead of 1902's Five Children and It. Maybe we should send them a correction?!)

Part of the humor came from the narrative voice, which was sort of old-fashioned in that it directly spoke to the reader. Here's an example we both liked:
“But one thing you can’t imagine, and that is how soda-water behaved when you try to drink it straight out of the syphon -- especially a quite full one. But if imagination will not help you, experience will, and you can easily try it for yourself if you can get a grown-up to give you the syphon. If you want to have a really thorough experience, put the tube in your mouth and press the handle very suddenly and very hard. You had better do it when you are alone - and out of doors is best for this experiment." (45)
It sort of made me think of what it would be like to describe the Diet Coke and Mentos trick to a future audience.

Plot v. CharactersSo this book really wasn't about the kids as characters, it was definitely about childhood as an adventure. In fact, it's clear that the real idea is that for each wish that goes wrong, the kids learn a moral lesson. As the chapters build and progress, the lessons become a little more sophisticated and complex.

But a few months later, I can't even remember much about the specific kids except for the baby, who all the kids call the Lamb. And the Lamb is most memorable for what happens in the chapter where they grow him up all at once---as it's a bleak look at a future adulthood where people are cold, brusque, and a little clueless. It's the children's world that is warm, empathetic, caring, and kind.

You made a great point that this one way children's books have really changed. Now, we expect that kids are going to want to latch on to the character in a powerfully empathetic way. We don't just *like* Harry, Ron, or Hermione---we want *to be* them!

Big cultural differences and time changes.
I was cooking with gas, sort of loving this whole thing, until the chapter about the Indians. From a modern perspective, it was absolutely cringeworthy. I guess we should have seen it coming with the references to gypsies...but it was jarring.

However, on the plus side, there did seem to be some attempt at gender equity. You noticed that phrases like "don't be a girl" and "be a man" were more about disdain for adult ways than true gender statements. But in other ways, it was obviously unable to escape its own time period.

One thing we both noticed, too, were the references that were dated because of history that hadn't happened yet. In the chapter about flying and flying machines---the Wright brothers hadn't flown yet! That would have been purely speculative and a total flight of fancy (pardon the pun). At one point, there was a joke about "germs" instead of "Germans," and I had to remind myself that the Germans weren't everybody's permanent bad guys. It was totally an okay thing to joke about.

As an overview, we both found this book charming and delightful. I sort of wished Darius was younger so I could have read it to him, but I would have had to skip that whole Indian chapter.

And I believe you said it best when you said, "The book really captured that sense of every day of childhood being an adventure--that when you're out playing with other kids, anything could happen." I think we both enjoyed this book and reading it together.

Sorry for the super delayed post!