Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Torch

“I have cancer…..”  states Teresa and those words set the stage for Cheryl Strayed’s book, The Torch.  The book draws a great deal from Strayed’s own real life history relying on the people she has interacted with during her growing up in Minnesota.  The story starts with Teresa’s sharing of the diagnosis with her two children, Claire and Josh, and then goes back into the day leading to the announcement.  Teresa, a survivor of a physically abusive relationship with her first husband, lands another man in her life, Bruce, who serves as a legitimate father figure for the two children, though the two do not wed until right before succumbing to cancer.  The story reminds me so much of the author Jodi Picoult in that (seemingly) all of the social issues of life become part of the storyline in this book.  Strayed’s strength is the development of the characters.  Teresa’s growth as a person is captured with a sense of realism and purpose.  The first half of the book focuses on her life prior to cancer, and the second half focuses on what happens to the three main people in her life after Teresa dies.  Needless to say, the three do not do well after Teresa’s death.  Her son Joshua gets involved in dealing drugs, even to a single mom, until the guilt gets to him.  Eventually he is arrested after he learns his girlfriend is pregnant.  Teresa’s daughter, Claire, becomes frigid and incapable of sustaining the sexual part of her relationship with her “live-in” boyfriend.  She eventually confesses she had an affair with the husband of a patient who died of cancer that she met when her mother was dying.  And then there was Bruce, whom seems to be shy of formal commitment, as witnessed by his decade long relationship with Teresa without marrying, then marries the next door neighbor a few months after Teresa’s passing.  The aftermath of Teresa’s death is pretty devastating to the three who were left behind.  Grief does come out in different ways, too bad the characters were unable to lean on each other a bit more.  Clearly some counseling would have helped this trio!  While I thought the characters were believable, the “onslaught” of issues was a bit over the top.  This would make for a great Monday night movie on Lifetime.  Not my favorite read, luckily it reads quickly and not a long book.  Not necessarily needed to be added to your list.  Sure to come out on a network tv channel movie at some point in time.      

Monday, June 24, 2013

A Visit from the Goon Squad

Get ready for a “non-linear” book when you read A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.  A Pulitzer prize winning book, the book is a compilation of short stories revolving around many of the same characters throughout, but it is not necessarily in the order in which “life happens” to the characters.  Once again, NYU is prominently noted as the college of choice for one of the characters!  Many of the stories were set in the NYC vicinity with lots of action taking place in the West Village.  The first story was majorly intriguing and brought me right in – the story of Sasha and her date with “Alex.”  We learn about Sasha’s kleptomaniac ways after she enters the ladies room on her night out and steals from an unsuspecting tourist, whom she later is “guilted” into returning to her when she hears her story.  Sasha works for Bennie, whom we learn is a music entertainment executive who has numerous love interests in his life and was hoping to actually be a musician but never has that dream realized.  Sasha and Bennie have an affair in between Bennie’s marriages.  The short story weaves in many of the characters we get glimpses of throughout the book and as we learn more things about the depth and the complexity of each character.  This is a book all about the lives of this group who love music “of the ages” – grew up in the 70s and coming of age in the 2000s and beyond.  It’s as if the bits of information we garner from one story help fill-in the life of a character later on, and yes this is all about the characters and much less about “the story.”  It certainly was influenced by character-rich movies of the 80s.  Sex, drugs (even gold as a drug of sorts), and rock ‘n roll are at the core of this book.  The thirteen chapters go pretty quickly though not all are my favorite reads, as some of the characters aren’t as connected to me as others, hit or miss.  Very well written and understand why the award came her way for this read.  Will be a popular book for many years to come, especially with this generation of working class 50-somethings!  

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Corner Office

(Extra book recommendation from former staff member)

Always good to read a book highlighted by a colleague, this time from a former NYUer hall staff member.  The book is The Corner Office by Adam Bryant, a NY Times writer.  The book focuses on what the writer learned from over 80 CEOs of major corporations (for profit and non-profit) outlining how to get to the “corner office” – hey, I have a corner office!!!  He didn’t interview me!  Oh well… his loss.  In fact, I’d say that I actually have a great corner office overlooking the Empire State building (oh yeah) and the Chrysler building.  I’m a lucky guy, yet I digress….  So the book… Bryant breaks down lessons learned into three categories: succeeding, managing, and leading.  He gives in-depth examples of experiences the CEOs had during their journey to the top of their respective companies.  Bryant suggests that there are themes that can be applied to moving up the corporate ladder.  In terms of highlights from each area, first succeeding: being curious in knowing “why” is a strong characteristic that runs across all of the leaders that were interviewed (makes great sense).  Other characteristics include having some “battle scars” as he describes (having a challenge in life that was overcome), realizing you are on a team, prepare – prepare – prepare and of course, have patience (as a former boss of mine would say, it is a marathon not a sprint!).  In managing: remember the importance of time management, learn how to facilitate meetings, be a great interviewer (as Jim Collins wrote “get the right people on the bus”), and learn how to coach people.  In the leading section: create a shared mission that is easy to understand and ensure you live it, offering small gestures to staff and clients will reap major benefits long term, and create a culture worth working in.  Many of the lessons seem simplistic, but in life the formula for success really is pretty simple, but as complicated human beings we tend to mess it up pretty well, huh.  Worth a read as it goes quickly and reinforces much of what we know already.  Thanks David for the suggestion!

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Sometimes you read a book that settles into your mind and heart and makes you think how lucky you are to be alive.  The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby is clearly one of these books.  It is a true story from the former editor of Elle magazine, who goes from a fully-functioning man and in an instant he loses it all and is permanently paralyzed in what is known as “locked-in syndrome,” resulting from a massive stroke at the age of 43.  Bauby miraculously is trained to use his eyes (through blinking) to write this book.  The book is a series of short stories capturing the challenges, the loses in life, and the small incidentals we forget and don’t recognize we have…. until it is too late.  I was very much moved by the book on many levels.  To have a family, be on top of the world professionally, and in a split second to lose it all – or at least have it, but being unable to communicate… what a tragic situation.  Just to read of Bauby’s ability to learn a new communication style shows his fight to be heard.  Bauby presents a sense of the unimaginable with wit, heroism, and grit.  Opening your mouth but not having it move, having so many thoughts and no way to communicate them to another human being, or having an itch and no way to relieve the sensation.  Bauby explains what stays in the recesses of your mind and how he found ways to move beyond to an inner peace.  I can’t imagine the pain.  His last vignette tells the story of being with his son driving a car to becoming paralyzed and lost in the coma.  One of the saddest triumphs of the book is that the author perished two days after the book was complete.  Something to be said for having a project/something to look forward to in life, and when that ended… so did he.  This book would be great for someone who has lost the appreciation for others and the small things.  What a book for reflection and gratitude for all we have… singing out loud in the shower, tasting strawberries dipped in chocolate sauce, hearing your child speak to you, and showing physical affection to a loved one… cherish these moments, my friends.  A very short read, worth the price!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Player Piano


When you think about the future of the world and how the world’s industrial revolution has ruined our society, who better to think of than Kurt Vonnegut and his book Player Piano.  I have read a number of Vonnegut’s books, and yes I think he is an “acquired” read, not for everyone.  He has an incredible ability to tell a story that pushes the reader to think.  Are we really better off in this world (at the rate we are going)?  In Player Piano, the protagonist Dr. Paul Proteus, a graduate of Cornell University, and the son of a famous inventor, is challenged to stay in the 1% or help humankind.  Proteus has moved up the ranks of his father’s company (his father has since passed away) and is vying for the unenviable manager of production of the Pittsburgh office, a better option than Illium, an upstate NY small town (I love the references to all of the upstate NY locales in Vonnegut’s books).  The company has been successful in creating machines for everything, well almost, at the expense of jobs for the men and women of the society.  At this point Vonnegut is presenting what our society has faced – the creation of the 1%.  In this case, the 99% lose all ability to roam freely through society, though they do get a small base pay and all health benefits (and great machines for their homes, which did the works of humans).  Proteus has everything a man could want, except he wants to live in nature, not put men out of work, and leave the 1%, much to the angst of his wife.  The story illustrates the demise of the human condition and the life we have come to expect – the all-American dream.  Proteus struggles in making his decision, especially as he is presented with further career trajectory.  Proteus escapes the 1%, but at a cost – his marriage and his ability to have all the luxuries that the elite receive in this society.  When he makes the final decision, the underground movement claims him as their leader and he then faces the task of evading the police and other 1%ers.  I really enjoyed how Vonnegut paints our society and how the decisions we are making now have a detrimental effect on the future of our society.  Proteus is presented as “everyman” who has to make a decision that he realizes will have lifestyle consequences, but he will be living by his own guiding principles.  The story written in 1952 is more real today than I am sure was the case at the time of the publication.  Vonnegut proves his instincts for our future, with the hope that there are other Paul Proteuses out there ready to make the right decisions that will impact the greater good.  Good read for twenty-somethings who hopefully will make similar choices for the greater good.