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?