Thursday, January 28, 2016

Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and The Importance of Imagination by J.K. Rowling (2008)

I do love J.K. Rowling more and more; this is a published book of her Harvard commencement address from 2008.



I originally looked up the commencement speech because I found and liked this quote by itself, and wanted to know where it came from, and if it had been taken out of context.

“We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”

It had not been taken out of context, and I still think it's beautiful.  In fact, I have it hanging on the wall outside my office now!

The commencement speech is quite wonderful; Rowling is an inspirational figure.  

I love that she named Death Eaters after her friends; I think that's hilarious.

I also liked this truism:  "There is an expiry date for blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction. The moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you." 

Quite a wonderful speech, and I'm glad it's been made into a neat little book.


My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I just love J.K. Rowling. She's great. The more she opens her mouth, the more words flow from her pen, the more she tweets, the more I like her. This book is a published speech she gave at Harvard's 2008 Commencement. It has some inspirational and moving quotes, the kind of quotes you make memes out of and then bother your friends with on Facebook, or turn into a 8.5 x 11 poster printed from your own printer that you hang up at work (guilty as charged). The illustrations in this book are not great. Quite frankly, they are stupid and look cheap. But the words overpower the stupid, cheap illustrations. This well worth the 15 minutes it will take to read it - go forth and find it!




Celebrating Failure: The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes, and Thinking Big by Ralph Heath (2009)

Note:  I read this book for work, not for pleasure.

Al Gore crack - I thought this was unnecessary and injected a political bias. I'm sure this was meant as a throw-away joke - and old chestnut at that - but it's the kind of joke a right winger would make  (sort of like the left wing would make a Trump joke).  I thought it tarnished his message, if ever so slightly.

He definitely has a very high opinion of himself and what he's done.  It's many examples of how great his company was, and how they succeeded, interspersed with some business motivational homilies.  There was occasional mention of others.  The most interesting was Lance Armstrong, who should never at this point should be quoted in anything motivational.

Chapter 12, "Break A Rib," was the one I thought was the most emotionally stimulating, if not intellectually interesting.  Heath used to frequent a favorite bike shop (of course he rides bike, the rich white man sport now that horse racing went out with the Astors), and they gradually treated him worse and worse until he stopped going.  It packed an emotional punch, because I think it's something we all have experienced as customers at one time or another, and on the other side of the counter, it's an experience in any field of service - whether private or public sector - that you as a administrator/supervisor/business owner are always trying to avoid.  At it's heart, it was about treating customers fairly, giving them all the information upfront so they can make informed choices and not feel cheated.

I did like the idea of "leading from the back" chapter 4, which starts with a quote from Lao Tzu, "to lead people, walk behind them."  Here is another version of the quote:

“To lead people, walk beside them ...
As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence.
The next best, the people honor and praise.
The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate ...
When the best leader's work is done the people say,
We did it ourselves!”

I think it's interesting that Heath chose the quote that uses "behind" rather than "beside" - which have different meanings.  "Behind" implies standing back, watchfulness - he says "Hang back" but to me it has a touch of paternalism; "beside" implies being right in the thick of things, working together.

[both of these "quotes" are the type of internet drivel that drives me nuts; Heath's quote has an attribution to Lao Tzu, but no source, which makes me think he just googled "cool leadership quotes" or some other kind of lazy scholarship; the other quote I pulled from Goodreads, and while I like it - I like them both - this is just as shitty scholarship, as it also doesn't say where this came from.  I guess these people knoew Lao Tzu personally, and are quoting something he told them at dinner - which makes Heath immortal]

He does go on, though, to say "if you want to encourage leadership in others, let them lead.  Be accepting of alternative solutions that are not your own and allow failure without punishment."  I do believe this is one of the best ways to be a leader; how well I practice this, though...  

Other points in this chapter: "trust your team."  "share control."  And "Take a sabbatical" - if it all falls apart when you are gone, something is wrong.


Celebrating Failure: The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes, and Thinking BigCelebrating Failure: The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes, and Thinking Big by Ralph Heath
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I celebrate the fact I was able to finish this book of blatherskitery. Blowhardishness. Gasbagisms. I read this for work, or I would have actually stopped a few pages in.

I'm giving it two stars because there was a quote (unattributed, which was lazy on the author's part; too busy bragging to look up references, I guess) that I liked, and a chapter (12, to be exact) that I found at the very least something beyond infuriating.


View all my reviews


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling (2007)

With the sacrificial lamb ending, it's probably apropos to quote Jesus:  "It is finished."  Or perhaps I should be quoting Aslan in some way, as Deathly Hallows has a very, very Narnia sort of ending.  Really, though, Rowling will never be completely finished with Harry Potter.  There's a new movie coming out - based on what is essentially a mock reference book.  A new play about Harry, Ron and Hermione (in which Hermione is a black actress, cue internet outrage).  Pottermore, the Dead Sea Scrolls of Harry Potter-mania, in which scriptures, er history, is added bit by bit.  Perhaps Harry Potter is the Beowulf of our times, destined to be read and dissected a thousand years from now. It's a fun thought.

Parsing out Harry Potter into seven published books clearly worked very, very well for making bank, but I think reading them in concert, one after the other, was a pleasant and more enjoyable experience.  Like binge watching a television series, you fell head over heels into the characters and action, and by the end I was sobbing aloud, sometimes unable to even continue reading, my eyes were so sore crying to hard and so much.  I now believe that when Rowling wrote Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets, her world wasn't quite baked yet, and she wasn't quite sure where she was headed.  Azkaban is a little bridge of a book that leads you into Goblet - but then once you start Goblet, Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince and finally Deathly Hallows all ALMOST can be read as one continuous epic.  Half-Blood Prince works the best if you read it like this (see my earlier post about not liking six).  

Deathly Hallows is a magnificent book.  The things I remember not liking about it when I read it long ago, particularly the scenes of them stuck in the wilderness arguing about Horcruxes, I didn't find annoying or boring at all this time.  Because I'd been immersed in Harry Potterdom for thousands of pages, Harry and Hermione stuck together waiting didn't seem tedious - I felt like I was there with them.   I can remember disliking Dobby when I read it in the past; now I wept like a baby when Dobby appeared to save Harry and Co., knowing he was going to die.  I thought the whole S.P.E.W. thing was silly; now I wept when Kreacher led the house elves of Hogwarts to battle for his master.  I thought there were too many characters sometimes; now I appreciate the vast multitude of minor characters who Rowling uses to infuse life into this world, and I wept when they all appeared, some of them for the last time, at the end of the book.  I wept when Snape asked Harry to look into his eyes (ohhhh, he sees Lily in Harry's eyes).  It's a very emotional book.  

I love this scene at the end:  " 'Get back!' shouted Ron, and he, Harry and Hermione flattened themselves against a door as a herd of galloping desks thundered past, shepherded by a sprinting Professor McGonagall.  She appeared not to notice them: her hair had come down and there was a gash on her cheek.  As she turned the corner, they heard her scream: 'CHARGE!'"  It's McGonagall as that wonderful British heroine, Boudica, right?  Not the sexy Boudica you get when you do a google image search; the Boudica from legend, the prim and proper mother figure taken to arms to defend her land.  I already argued that Harry Potter was a satire; now I'm going to inject some postmodern flavor as well.  

The ending is completely, and totally, straight out of a classic British series that will be the Elder Edda to Rowling's Beowulf:  The Chronicles of Narnia.  Aslan, slain by an evil witch, but not before being tortured by her followers, comes back from the dead and kicks her ass.  Harry, slain by an evil wizard, is tortured afterwards instead of before, but comes back from the dead and kicks his ass.  

(I think I'm failing in the use of metaphors here, as The Lord of the Rings would be more rightly called The Elder Edda to Rowling's Beowulf, but I couldn't think of another thousand year old epic).  

Worst things Dumbledore says to anyone in the whole series.  To Snape:  "You know, I think sometimes we Sort too soon."  Snape has proved his Gryffindor bravery; how different this world would have been if Snape had been sorted into Gryffindor.

Two lines from the movie that wasn't in the book, but sure have been.

one:  Hermione offers to come with Harry when he goes to face Voldemort.  She's offering up her life, as she probably wouldn't survive.  Although Hermione is a kick ass witch on her own, and perhaps could have defeated Voldemort.

two:  Harry asks his ghost parents:  "why are you here?" and his mother answers "We never left."

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In a thousand years, I would like to imagine that Harry Potter will be the Beowulf of the 31st century, a massive and exciting epic, studied for its clues on literature and life of a certain time period in the history of humanity. Students will still be imagining themselves as Hermione or Harry, debating the merits of Dumbledore, weeping over the death of Snape. Parsing out Harry Potter into seven published books clearly worked very, very well for making bank, but I think reading them in concert, one after the other, was an exciting, rewarding and ultimately intellectual experience. Like binge-watching a television series, in one fell swoop you become one with into the characters and action, and by the end I was sobbing aloud, sometimes unable to even continue reading, my eyes were so sore crying to hard and so much. Deathly Hallows is a magnificent book. The things I remember not liking about it when I read it long ago, particularly the scenes of them stuck in the wilderness arguing about Horcruxes, I didn't find annoying or boring at all this time. Because I'd been immersed in Harry Potterdom for thousands of pages, Harry and Hermione stuck together waiting didn't seem tedious - I felt like I was there with them. I can remember disliking Dobby when I read it in the past; now I wept like a baby when Dobby appeared to save Harry and Co., knowing he was going to die. I thought the whole S.P.E.W. thing was silly; now I wept when Kreacher led the house elves of Hogwarts to battle for his master. I thought there were too many characters sometimes; now I appreciate the vast multitude of minor characters who Rowling uses to infuse life into this world, and I wept when they all appeared, some of them for the last time, at the end of the book. I wept when Snape asked Harry to look into his eyes (ohhhh, he sees Lily in Harry's eyes). It's a very emotional book. I was sorry to see it end.


Monday, January 25, 2016

Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland (2015)

I was disappointed.

Apparently, I enjoyed Rubicon immensely back in the day - but promptly forgot about it.  Tried to re-read it, thinking I was reading it for the first time.

This didn't live up to that one.

Didn't finish it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.R. Rowling (2005)

Half-Blood Prince is gristly sinew that holds together Books 5 and 7 in the Harry Potter series; it's not very tasty.  Mostly exposition and explanation, Rowling is building up the finale that is Deathly Hallows.  Every Potterish box is check marked on the check list:  Scooby Doo mystery (check), Malfoy acting superior (check), Ron jealous (check), Snape mysterious and grumpy (check).  You would think after saving everyone's asses five times in a row, people would start to trust and believe Harry Potter's instincts, this time about Malfoy (and Snape), but nope.  No one believes (not in 7 either).

There's not enough Malfoy and too much quidditch in 6.  Malfoy is just about the only interesting thing in the whole book, and we hardly get anything  - just bits and pieces, mostly seen through Harry's intense mistrust and dislike. 

There's a lot of love in this book too, which I remember finding extremely annoying the first time I read it; I guess I'm numb to it now.  I do think that some characters act far older than they actually are; Ginny Weasley, for example, is a very mature 14 year old.  Perhaps wizarding families mature faster than Muggles.  But for teen relationships, they all seem very adult.

So, my least favorite in the series (the movie is even worse).


Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Harry Potter #6)Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If, like me, you read all seven Harry Potters in a row, then there isn't anything meh-worthy about the series. You can quibble the ridiculously complicated Scooby Doo mystery plots (Voldemort says: "Foiled again, and I would have gotten away with too, if it hadn't been for you meddling kids;" you can also spend plenty of time poking holes in the Macy's Thanksgiving parade balloon that is the world of Harry Potter - but the series really is delightful (just like a parade). The rules of magic aren't always the easiest to create (Rowling's time turner is my bane of the series), but Rowling's world building is not only a strong example of satire, but quite fun. However, carving apart the series leaves each book to rise or fall, and the air pretty much leaks out of 6 by the end. It's by far the weakest of the series; much exposition and explanation and not a whole lot of anything else. The Harry Potter checklist has each and every box faithfully ticked off (Malfoy acting suspicious, check. Snape, mysterious and bitchy, check. Ron jealous, check. Trelawney drunk, check. And so on.). This is 5 reeled out, a thin piece of twine that connects 7, and that's all.


View all my reviews

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: the Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes (2008)

The Second World War has been boiled down into romanticized jam, particularly the Battle of Britain.  You know that story - stiff upper lip, sheltering in the tube, child evacuees, Queen Elizabeth saying "I can look the East End in the face," Edward R. Murrow.  You know, this:











The stories in Good Evening, Mrs. Craven, are like chunks of strawberries in that jam, even  there's no physical destruction of bombed building and mayhem and wounded civilians.  There is plenty of small destruction, as the war and its long arm destroys families, marriages, affairs, and ways of life.  Mollie Panter-Downes was a prolific writer for The New Yorker:  according to the biography at the end, she published "852 pieces in the magazine..." including "poems, short stories, London Letters, book reviews, profiles, Letters from England, Far Flung Correspondent Pieces, Reporter at Large coverage, Onward and Upward with the Arts columns, and numerous one-off articles."  That's pretty amazing.  Of the short stories in this book, only two have been previously published outside their initial running in the magazine.

Although these stories are fiction, but also have a touch of "on the ground" - they were being written as great events were happening all around Panter-Downes - the start of the war, the phony war, Dunkirk, The Blitz, Pearl Harbor, D-Day.  So although the stories are all have a charm and simplicity about them - the problems of living with evacuated strangers, a mistress contemplating her married lover's demise, absent husbands -- constantly hovering over them are great events.  Hitler could invade and destroy these simple lives at any moment; bombs could drop; but life goes on.  There is a touch of propaganda to these stories then, the same fingerprint that marks Mrs. Miniver and Casablanca.  That doesn't make them any less enjoyable or beautiful though. 


Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-DownesGood Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes by Mollie Panter-Downes


If the Battle of Britain and the Blitz has been boiled down into sentimentalized, romanticized jam with large chunks of Edward R. Murrow, and Queen Elizabeth's "I can look the East End in the face,"and Saint Paul's stark against the smoke of fires from bombs, then Molly Panter-Downes stories certainly are part of that jam as well; they should be a better known part, but all but two of these stories had never appeared anywhere outside their initial publication in The New Yorker in the 1940s. This is propaganda, like Mrs. Miniver or Casablanca, but charming, often funny, occasionally poignant and sad propaganda. War is hell; but in these stories the hell is heartache for a missing lover, or the petty annoyances of strange evacuees living in your house in the country for four years. What I particularly liked about this book is the "on the ground" feel of the stories; these pining wives and mistresses, old ladies knitting and old servants aghast at Canadian soldiers all seemed so real. Panter-Downes wasn't writing these stories from memories stored up years later; she was writing them as the war happened around her. There isn't casualties and mayhem and bloody bombs; there is very real people facing the war in various and sundry ways. It's not a period piece though; the stories still have the power of resonance even today.


View all my reviews




Monday, January 11, 2016

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling (2003)

This wasn't my favorite Harry Potter, and it still isn't (that now probably belongs to Goblet of Fire) but it was much better than I remember it being.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Harry Potter #5)Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling


This is the book in the series everyone, simply everyone, is being an asshole. Harry is an angsty teenage asshole; I'm surprised he's not dressed in black with anarchy symbols sporting a skateboard rather than a broomstick). Sirius Black is a thin-skinned, juvenile, emotionally callow asshole (Note to Sirius: Harry is never going to be James Potter; get over it already). Hagrid is still an asshole, although the giants are far bigger assholes to him. Dolores Umbridge is queen of the assholes. Dumbledore is an asshole to Harry. Seamus is an asshole. Malfoy, of course, is always an asshole; actually, he's more a douchebag. Lavender Brown is an asshole; Fudge is an asshole. Kreacher is an asshole. Cho Chang is an asshole, as is her friend Marietta. I suppose it's a given that Voldemort is an asshole.

Interestingly, Ron, who I think is usually one of two assholes in every other book (the other always being Hagrid) is far less of an asshole this time. A shitty quidditch player, but he's not so assholish.

Hermione, Ginny, Luna, and Neville are never assholes. Ever.


View all my reviews


 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Coronation Summer by Angela Thirkell (1937)

High hopes, dashed on the rocks of my literary fastidiousness and capriciousness.  I really wanted to enjoy this book, but the plot was plodding.  There were some definite bright spots - I loved Fanny's bitchy asides about her friend Emily.  I also was reminded of one of my favorite books, Sorcery and Cecilia, the epistolary novel by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, only then  I kept wanting it to be more like that book, and it wasn't.  If anything good comes out of Coronation Summer, it is to make me re-read my beloved Sorcery and Cecilia.


Coronation SummerCoronation Summer by Angela Thirkell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

High hopes, dashed on the rocks of my literary fastidiousness and capriciousness. I really wanted to be enthralled by this book, and instead was bored by the plodding plot and occasional ornate and over flowery choice of words. I guess I was hoping for a more lighthearted book. There were some bright spots that flared up every so often; I liked Fanny's bitchy asides about her friend Emily. There needed to be more of that. The whole book reminded me a bit of Sorcery & Cecelia: or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, an old favorite of mine; but not enough to make me like this book.



View all my reviews

Monday, January 4, 2016

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik (2015)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Pure, candy-coated hagiography -- Carmon & Knizhnik venerate St. Ruth. But they do so in such a joyous and and get a kick out of it way, that you come away feeling the same way. The "Lucy" Darwinian ancestor of this biography isn't truly a medieval book of saints; rather, it's one of those Scholastic paperback biographies from the 1990s about each member of New Kids on the Block, only turned up several notches into readable enjoyability. Carmon & Knizhnik clearly adore their subject (they surely have a pin-up of RBG taped to the inside door of their lockers), but also occasionally gently poke fun at some of the more Ginsbergian things the notorious RBG does and says. But always, always in sporting, loving jest. Above all, they both ken and are then able to illustrate the seriousness of RBG's role on the court, and what her life and career represent to women of all ages. You don't have to be a liberal to appreciate the strides RBG has made for her sex. You may have to be a liberal to love this book. I know I did.





 There were many things I liked about this book:  the illustrations, the anecdotes, a gentle dusting of inside SCOTUS scoop.  I cried when Marty Ginsberg died; there is a love story for the ages.  

I particularly liked the appendix titled:  "How to Be Like RBG" because these are good rules for living life to the fullest:

Work for what you believe in,
But pick your battles,
And don't burn your bridges.
Don't be afraid to take charge.
Think about what you want, then do the work,
But then enjoy what makes you happy.
Bring along your crew.
Have a sense of humor.

My Year in Reading: 2015

I read about 93 books  in 2015; this is significantly lower than in years past.  I blame the internet.  New Year's Resolution:  read less internet and more books!

In perusing my reviews at Goodreads, I didn't give any fiction or nonfiction for adults published in 2015 "five stars."  I did give a five star rating to The World In A Second by Isabel Minhós Martins and illustrated by Bernardo Carvalho, which I called "stunning and irresistible."  

Four stars went to Stone in the Sky by Cecil Castellucci, part of a young adult series about a space station and its inhabitants, including the strong female character Tula Bane; I said it "reminded me of a really good mid-season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation" which is piece of fantastic-ness coming from my mouth.  I gave the first book in this series, Tin Star, five stars; although I generally hate series, I'm sort of interested to see what's next.

I continued the quest to re-read all Agatha Christie in chronological order, reading three of them last year.  Since the sad passing of Terry Pratchett, I'm going to re-read all of his Discworld books; I read two of those.  And our book club is reading the entire Harry Potter series; I finished the year reading books 1-4 and thoroughly enjoying that.

It was a very good year for re-reads and reading older titles, rather than things that are new.  Here is a list of some other books I read last year, in no particular order, that I really enjoyed.

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor (1957).  In the list of characters I've loved to hate over the years, Elizabeth Taylor's loathsome and self absorbed authoress  of the title certainly ranks near or at the very top.  

The Storied Life A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (2014).  Pure fluff, but enjoyable all the same.  I had a hard time putting it down.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014).  I actually read this twice last year, and the second time submerged itself into my brain, heart and soul and lodged there, unforgettable and wondrously frightening and sort of beautiful.  If the world does indeed end, I hope I get stuck in a traveling Shakespeare troupe and orchestra rather than fodder for zombies.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber  (2014).  Meaty, slow, strong and good, using science fiction tropes to tell us about ourselves; although the aliens in this book are truly alien, completely beyond comprehension.  

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (2014).  I can't wait to read my next David Mitchell.  The Bone Clocks was like a being infected by a slow acting virus; the longer it sat in my system, the more it took over my thoughts.  It's a thinker, and also an adventure took.  Some of it didn't make a lick of sense, but I didn't care - I lapped it all up.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925).  The last time I know I read The Great Gatsby was in school - maybe even eighth grade.  I might have read it in college too.  It didn't matter; The Great Gatsby  is a lodestone for American literature; it's entered into our collective consciousness about what it means to be American, to be rich, to be from the East Coast, to be from Long Island, to be an outside, to love, and to lose.  

FDR by Jean Edward Smith (2007).  Probably the best piece of nonfiction I read in  2015; Smith uses the four most important women in Franklin Roosevelt's life to build the skyscraper that became FDR.  A magnificently written book.  

Malice at the Palace by Rhys Bowen (2015).  Sometimes series peter out; I was afraid this was happening to Her Royal Spyness, one of my favorite mysteries series.  Malice at the Palace brought everything I love about the series - screwball madcap murder and real minor royalty, roaring and romping back.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West (1931).  I can't do any better on this book than I did back in October 2015:  "In my personal pantheon of literary greatness, E.M. Forster is Jupiter, and other books, literary fiction in particular, are measured against the golden literary mean of Howards End (my perfect novel).   Of course, this is hyperbole (rhetoric?); but it's difficult not to compare anything written between 1900 and 1945ish to Forster (or sometimes Downton Abbey and occasionally Agatha Christie).  All Passion Spent lands squarely (and a bit heavily) into that box of delights, and falls short of Forsterian greatness.  But then in my literary comparisons, everything skates up to Howards End before falling off into the abyss of other novels not Forster.  At least so far.  Alan Hollinghurst has come closest."

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood (1964).   This resonated with me;  it was bitter and sad, and certainly not the best book to read before I was turning 45 last year.  Incredibly well written - but could you expect anything less from Isherwood?




Blog Archive

Followers