Thursday, December 31, 2015

Robinson Crusoe (Extra Book)


 
What a way to finish the old year… with another classic read, this one, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.  In much the same vein as my last read, it is the story of the journey of one man, Mr. Crusoe.  Crusoe is the youngest of three boys who leaves home at the tender age of 18 for an adventure of a lifetime.   However, his voyage is cut short when his ship is wrecked at sea.  This accident only adds to his desire for the sea and he sails again, but this time his voyage is taken over by pirates and he escapes with a captain to Africa, where he earns a plantation. 
On his next voyage a few years later, to bring slaves out of Africa his ship is wrecked and he is the only human survivor landing on an island, which is thought to be Tobago.  The dog and two cats of the ship’s captain also manage to get ashore.  This is where the bulk of the story takes place during Crusoe’s time on the island attempting to survive.  Crusoe struggles at first wondering if he can live a life of solitude, but he turns to God for support and learns that he can thrive on the island, by utilizing the various elements of the land.  He turns to scripture, a copy of the Bible is found from the wreckage, and helps him to develop his spirituality.  His daily rituals and ability to communicate with nature is impressive.  He uses the land to survive, eating berries, using the skin from captured animals for colder weather and building a home to live.  He creates a calendar to track his time in isolation and notes the trends in weather and nightfall as the years pass. He is visited by native “cannibals” who want to eat him alive, and gains a companion, named “Friday”, who stays with him after the natives leave the land.  A few years pass and eventually Friday and Crusoe escape the island with the help of Friday’s father who happens to also make an expedition to the island as part of the natives’ annual visit from the natives.  It was a 25+ year timeframe of living on the island for Crusoe, who later shows the natives how he lived on the land. 
There are a few more voyages left until he returns to his native land with wealth he had received of his estate from Brazil, as his parents thought he was dead and did not leave anything for him in their will.  Crusoe’s story is one of human will being stronger than the odds of failure that surely were against him.  This is an iconic story which sets the stage for the “cast-away” sailors that come in rapid succession in later years (movies, TV shows, and other books) and even today’s reality shows, like Survivor and Running Wild with Bear Grylls, have the element of being captive with only your own hands, your faith, and ingenuity to make it on your own.  I enjoyed the Crusoe’s days alone contemplating life and what is truly important.  I guess in many ways, Crusoe’s life is very much like our own, though we don’t have the island piece.  Defoe writes a story that illustrates man’s search for meaning when there doesn’t seem to be any.  Great book.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Gulliver's Travels (Extra Book)


 
I keep on reading (listening) to the classics.  This time it was Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.  The story of an Englishman who takes great voyages to far away regions of the world, sharing lessons learned about culture, people, and his experiences.  The book is broken into four parts, the first (my favorite) tells of Gulliver being washed ashore when his ship capsizes.  He finds himself stranded on the island of Lilliput where he is the giant amongst a land of “little people” and is captured until he assists in the battle against a neighboring clan of rivals.  After Gulliver helps in the battle, he is seen as a hero to the villagers and receives some accommodations by the King.  

Gulliver’s trips take him on a number of voyages including:  Brobdingnag, Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, Japan, and his last (as the captain of the ship) to Houyhnhnms.  The last, and my favorite, is where he meets the savages, called the Yahoos!, after his crew desert him.  At first he adjusts to their culture, but finally is driven away and rescued once again by a ship heading to his homeland. 

Back home, he reconciles with his family, who he has spent minimal time with due to his travels around the globe.  Gulliver’s days at home are not easy as he can’t seem to let go of his time away.  He slowly becomes insane as he is incapable of speaking to family and starts to communicate with animals.  Lots of metaphors presented by Swift, whose prose is outstanding and story-telling abilities top-notch.  Some of the themes center on issues Swift encounters in his own life and society, such as, are people really good or bad, what should the role of government be in how it manages its people, is there a better society and should we be looking for it ourselves?  Thoughtful commentary on Swift’s day.  A great read.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Treasure Island


 
With some free time at this time of the year, I decided to embark on four classic reads from the New York Times 100 best fiction novels of all-time. 
The first one I read was Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.  Hard to believe I never read this book, but I certainly have heard/seen the tale which presents the search for the missing treasure by a young lad and all whom he involves along the way.   The story begins at an inn run by a family, the Hawkins.  Early in the story, Mr. Hawkins dies and a visiting old sailor (known as the captain), who seemingly has no money, asks to stay at the inn until he is visited by some old pirates.  A fight ensues and the old sailor (Billy Bones) is left for dead, and eventually dies.  The person who is looking for “Billy Bones” appears at the Hawkins Inn, prior to that, young Hawkins (Jimmy) and his mother, decide to look through the chest of the dead man as they realize he is hiding something and others are coming to find him.  Jimmy finds a map that appears to reveal the location of a treasure, since he found the key on Billy Bones’ dead body.  Jimmy tells the local doctor (Livesey) about the treasure map and the key, and how he plans on finding the treasure allowing Livesey to join his team to sail and find the riches left behind by Captain Flint.  Livesey assembles a team for the voyage, some are old sailors and others friends that want to partake in the voyage.  One of Livesey’s companions tells others about the treasure, which is sure to attract unsavory people on the voyage, which it does.  Finally when the team and the boat are acquired, off they venture to find the treasure.  Jimmy overhears some of the crew plotting to overtake Livesey and the Captain once the boat approaches land.  Of course between their own mutineers and pirates who also heard of the voyage, Livesey and his small group of supporters have to fight to hold off the enemies.  Jimmy plays a key role in the fighting, as does Ben Gun, a young sailor who was stuck on the island for three years before this crew arrived.  Eventually good defeats evil, but it has its cost.  Livesey, Ben Gun, and of course, Jimmy are on the winning team who not only find the treasure, but escape the island and head back to England to live the high life!  Always enjoy happy-ending stories where the good-guys outlast the bad guys.  Fun read and much better than I anticipated.  Also, a fun read for a parent to read to their child as a bed-time story.  Dreaming of the missing treasure?  Why not, it does exist somewhere out there

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Colorless



I really enjoy author Haruki Murakami’s books and his latest, Colorless is a deep read on the burgeoning of friendship and what happens after it all falls apart.  Murakami presents the reader with a flawed protagonist in Tsukuru Tazaki, but it isn’t all his fault for what happens in his life.  Tsukuru’s story begins in high school as a member of a tight group of five classmates, three boys and two girls, all whose surname when translated represents a color, except for Tsukuru, whose name translates into “create” (This fits him well as Tsukuru desires to be a railroad engineer, which he does attain as a profession). Tsukuru and his four friends are inseparable.  They are the perfect example of friendship always supporting each other and together as much as they can.  This all ends when Tsukuru decides to attend an engineering college away from their hometown.  When he returns for the summer between his first and second year, everything changes.  He calls upon one of the friends, who notifies him never to call again, and Tsukuru accepts this and doesn’t, though for the next sixteen years he is left wondering what happened. 
Enter Sara, a young woman he has just started a relationship with, which he hopes will develop into a lifetime love.  Sara is not convinced that he is ready for a relationship as there appears to be something he has never dealt with… and so Sara learns of the group of five friends and that the friendship ended abruptly, without Tsukuru knowing why.  After she hears of the story, she says she will only see him again if he meets with the four to learn what actually happened.  The rest of the book delves into Tsukuru’s journey into his past.  What he learns along the way will bring him face to face with his subconscious fears and much more.  Even Tsukuru is alarmed at what he learns, as is the reader.  Will Tsukuru survive his new knowledge, what happened to the four others, and will his hope of a lifetime love with Sara actually remain after his journey with his past?  Great questions and more.  Love how Murakami leaves the ending for the reader.  What’s next?  I know there will be lots of interpretations as to what is left for Tsukuru after his journey.  So worth reading.  A journey story of a thirty-something, what could be better?  Need to add this one to the RA Book Club someday.   

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Art of Fielding


 
The RA Book Club read The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach this semester.  Below are some of their thoughts on the book!
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach is an easy to read story of illicit love, university life, and the sacrifices made for college sports.  It is a must-read for students, or anyone else, who find themselves feeling lost and hoping for an extrapolation about the unpredictability of life.  Although the story does have some slow points, Harbach’s technique of flipping between stories each chapter keeps the novel moving and keeps the reader’s interest.  Harbach writes what seems to start as a baseball story without presuming any knowledge of the topic and ends the novel as more of a story about the determination and persistence required to play baseball successfully. – SDR
I had a very rich experience reading Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. In it lies such a great balance between character development and the incessant experience surrounding a game that is so relatable on many levels. For the Ball player who identifies with the spiritual crisis, for the common folk who appreciates an author’s attention to the minor details. The Art of Fielding ends each paragraph with the reader wanting for more. –DJM

Chad Harbach’s stellar novel was slow to start, but as I kept reading I found that I couldn’t put it down. At first, I assumed it would be a story about baseball, and, in many ways, it was. But more so, the novel focuses on the how baseball can stand as a metaphor for the human condition. We all have our individual struggles: mental block, smoking, alcoholism, the fear of failure, the fear of exclusion, but we are together in our struggles to make it to the bottom of the 9th inning, to dig deep and fight as long as we can.
I found Harbach’s prose to be phenomenal; it was easy to read, but deeply insightful. I found his use of metaphor to be selective, but powerfully so, and I found his descriptions of life at Westish to be masterfully done. Many times, while reading, I found myself transported to that world. I found the characters (for the most part) endearing and engaging: I particularly loved Owen and Affenlight- the modern day scholars, with old souls and youthful dispositions. I approved of Schwartz and Henry, though I found it odd that there was no antagonist (beyond the mental issues they each experienced). There was obviously tension in the novel, but I wanted to pin it on someone, or something other than the fear of failure.
The ending, I found to be touching, if a little unrealistic, compared to the strict plausibility of the rest of the novel. Henry was, in my opinion, not supposed to be a pro baseball player: I wanted him to have a clean separation from the game of his youth. I also found Affenlight’s burial touching, but a little contrived.
All in all, I would rate this novel a 7/10 for it’s engagement and entertainment, but that’s about it. It isn’t the grandest novel, and I don’t feel change by it, but it is enlightening, funny and entertaining in all the right ways. – GE

It's all too infrequent in life that you come across a book that really makes you feel something. I'm not talking about a book that makes you cry for one scene or that has a joke that makes you laugh, I'm talking about a prolonged sensation that carries you through chapter after chapter. For me, Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding feels like home. The book left me with a lingering sense of warmth and care co-mingled with the drama and grief that signals family and being home. On surface level, The Art of Fielding is a book about college baseball, but, if you just barely scratch the surface, it becomes immediately clear that what it's really about is relationships. It is an exploration of the way different people interact with their family, their friends, their childhood heroes, and, perhaps most importantly, themselves. If you're looking for a relaxed, fun, easy read, this book might not be for you. If you're looking for a 521 page emotional roller to suck you in and spit you out a few days later with an odd desire to go hug someone and toss around a baseball even though you hate sports, they have a copy of The Art of Fielding in Bobst, go check it out. –KMJ

As for The Art of Fielding, I have to admit that while I enjoyed some parts of the book, I didn't connect with the overall message as much as I would have hoped. My biggest praise for the book is the character development. I feel that Harbach did a great job in creating authentic, believable, and essentially, human characters. I definitely know a Pella, a Henry, and a Mike Schwartz in my own life, and the characters made the message of the book much more relatable to me. However, while the book started out as being driven by factors that weren't baseball, the book lost me in the last 200 pages or so because the plot was very much driven by the games and I just didn't connect with that style of writing. The overall themes were very universal -- failure, determination, persistence, and growing up -- but I felt that I could connect with them only on a superficial level because each theme in the book was conveyed in the framework of baseball, a relatively uninteresting game to me.
Also, I'm not sure if this is a fair critique to make, but I didn't feel that the book represented women very well. I might be currently hypersensitive of these issues simply because of recent events that have taken place in my life, but in the future, I would prefer to read books that represent women in more diverse circumstances than sexual ones. Pella was the only focal female character in the book, and we only got to see her through the lens of her relationships with other men. The Art of Fielding was written by a man, about men...which is interesting considering the majority of book club this semester was women! All in all though, I truly looked forward to each Sunday that we met. I'm in a purely science program, so it's not often that I am given the opportunity to read good fiction novels and talk about them and I appreciated the chance to do this once a month! -MN

Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding was not a book I was entirely excited to read. All I knew was it centered around college baseball, and I don't follow any sport besides triathlon. But, I love the community of book clubs and gave it a go. And I am glad I did. This book is so much more than a story about baseball, it covers complicated questions and thoughts that every college student has about life, love, difficult decisions and how passion can be a driving force to both success and downfall. This novel was well written and followed each story line in a readable and interesting manner. I enjoyed the writing style as much as the story and was especially impressed with Harbach's character development. There was not one character who was "textbook good or perfect". Everyone had flaws which made them relate-able and easy to connect with while reading. As a graduating senior, I appreciated reading this book because it validated many of the thoughts I have had as an involved college student, and the fears and insecurities I have about going into the real world. My favorite character was Mike and I felt like I understood a lot of the struggle he felt as being a great captain and leader, but never the star athlete. His character development throughout the book was not drastic, but subtle, realistic and powerful to me. -MP

 
 

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Oliver Twist



It’s always nice to be asked to read a book with someone and be able to chat about your impressions, likes/dislikes, and what you got out of the book.  So it was on this Thanksgiving weekend of traveling back and forth by train to Albany by reading the classic Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.  When I was approached by the RA (Michael) about reading it, I was surprised I hadn’t read it previously, but it has never been one of the RA Favorites, so I agreed. 
Oliver is born an orphan, after his mother dies in child-birth delivering him in the doctor’s office.  All we seemingly know of is mother is that she is a poor woman, with no identifiable information pertaining to who she is, or where she comes from, of course later as the story progresses we learn of the deceitfulness of one of the nurses who steals information about the mother and her note and gift for the unborn baby.  The doctor names him Oliver Twist and he is sent to an orphanage, where he is treated cruelly, much like all of the other children who reside there.  He is sent to one apprenticeship after another, and finally escapes to London, where he is introduced to a group of children who use pickpocketing as their means for making money. The band of boys invite him into their “home” and Oliver begins a series of unfortunate choices that captures him into a life of thievery, even arrest, which he gets out of when he meets the kind Mr. Bronlow, who believes in the smile and sweetness of Oliver.  But once again, Oliver is captured by the man who run the band of boys, Fagin (The Jewish criminal).  A plot is set against him by Fagin and a mysterious man who appears with Fagin so that Oliver never finds out about his past.  Oliver is used as bait to help Fagin and his accomplices to rob a house, but that is thwarted, and Oliver is shot and left to die, but somehow returns to the scene of the crime, where the mistresses (Mrs. Maylie and her niece Rose) of the house have a deep connection to him and restore him to health.  Of course there are many connections underlying all of the various characters that Oliver interacts with in his short life, Bronlow, Rose, Mrs. Maylie, his former bosses during his apprentices, the orphanage owner, Fagin, and Monks that lead Oliver to learn of his past, whom his mother was, and the biggest lesson that Oliver has family members still alive. 

Dickens provides a good deal of social commentary on the life of an orphan, the treachery involved in crime and prostitution, and abuse of the poor in the urban center.  This is a book about how corruption of resources/education and good vs. evil exist in our society.  Dickens is a pre-cursor to many of today’s authors on how each character in the story will have a role in the ending.  It is a period piece that shows us what life was like in this time.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and am looking forward to the conversation that will ensue during my debriefing later today! A story that you can’t put down, always looking for the next turn and connection in how Oliver will survive!  A classic very much worth reading! 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A Monster Calls



When you read a great book, you think about it endlessly.  And when you read a book that hits at your core, you probably never forget it.  I find many kid’s books are simple, yet profound.  This one hit me the hardest, especially considering my sister’s struggle with cancer.  The book, A Monster Calls, written by Patrick Ness (and inspired by Siobhan Dowd), is the story of a young boy named Conor O’Malley who develops reoccurring nightmares which lead to his nighttime meetings with a monster.  The monster is there to share three tales with him, and then have him share his story after hearing the tales.  The backdrop to the nightmares is that Conor is in a single parent family, living with his Mum (yes, a British setting for this tale), who developed cancer just the summer before.  (This I’m sure is chronicling in some way the original author’s own life, in which Ms. Dowd succumbed to cancer before the book was completed). 
Conor’s Dad left the family and relocated to America with his new wife and child.  The depth of the story hits on many levels.  Conor is frozen by his mother’s battle against cancer as each treatment is failing, with one last attempt made by her doctors; to inject her with the “elements” of the yew tree, a healing tree.  The three stories shared with Conor all have a twist, where the Monster seemingly helped the person who harmed others… but looking through another lens, was it really that way?  The monster explains the complications within human beings, “it doesn’t matter what you think, because your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day….. your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary.  And your mind will punish you for believing both.”  Monsters can be so profound…  In the end, Conor is forced to tell his story to the Monster, or else, as the Monster notes, he won’t let him alone.  Letting go of the things you love can be freeing… for who?  I cry when I think about this story… thanks Kristin for suggesting it.  A read that will moisten your eyes.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Tao Te Ching


Yes, my final RA Favorite Book for this year is Tao Te Ching, the ancient words of Lao Tzu translated by Stephen Mitchell.  It is a classic on how we should live, providing balance and perspective on gaining a generous spirit.  Throughout the 81 different brief ways of living, one is asked to reflect and adopt the various wise passages to become a better person. The reader is asked to work to be better in every aspect of our lives.  I think the very best way to explain the book is to share some of the more memorable passages I found.  You be the judge.  I think if we all reflected on some of these, the world, and all those who inhabit it, would be better.  Thanks for sharing this book as a favorite… and here it goes:

                If you understand others you are smart,
                If you understand yourself you are illuminated.

                If you overcome others you are powerful.
                If you overcome yourself you have strength.

                If you know how to be satisfied you are rich.
                If you can act with vigor, you have a will.

                If you don’t lose your objectives you can be long-lasting.
                If you die without loss, you are eternal.

And about the Tao itself….           The Tao is so vast that when you use it, something is always left.
                                                           How deep it is! It seems to be the ancestor of the myriad things.

                                It blunts sharpness, untangles knots, soften the glare, unifies the
                                Mundane.  It is so full!  It seems to have remainder.  It is the child

                                Of I don’t know who.  And prior to the primeval Lord-on-high.

And finally:                                           True words are not fancy.  Fancy words are not true.
                                                                The good do not debate.  Debaters are not good.

                                                                The one who really knows is not broadly learned,
                                                                The extensively learned do not really know.

                                                                The sage does not hoard, she gives people her surplus.

                                                                Giving her surplus to others she is enriched.
                                                                The way of Heaven is to help and not harm.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Between Stations



Between Stations by Kim Cheng Boey is a series of essays that are rooted in Kim’s life as he emigrates out of his birthplace, Singapore and his current home, Sydney, Australia.  Boey travels through India, China, Egypt, and Morocco.  He shares many of his experiences as he visits mixes of people, the market places, and brings history and religion of what he notes from his upbringing. 
He is a young man when he leaves Calcutta in 1994 as he drifts from low paying job to another, first as an assistant superintendent in a jail and later as a probation officer.  Throughout, he is haunted by his relationship with his father, who too was a drifter, disappearing from the family and becoming a gambler.  The restlessness within his father is noted as having affected how Boey also approaches life, finding it easier to move along than stay in one place.  Boey draws upon some of the great poets of our time in expressing his journey.  This one captures Boey’s journey quite well:  “walking is a way of disconnecting from the terrestrial to find the real home, the path towards self-renunciation with something transcendental.”  Boey walks to connect with his father, but can’t seem to ever find him (in a metaphorical manner). 
Boey also has a hard time understanding his relationship with his grandmother.  He notes her role in the family when his father, and then mother left, and how she was the glue.  But as she ages, her mind and ability to discern her own connection with Boey, she too seems to drift away from him.  Boey is brilliant in emphasizing the people, foods, smells, and fabrics of culture, that remind us of our past as he travels on his journey.    He clearly is inspired by poetry, theatre, and all forms of art (photography, music, and other writings) and draws upon DuFu after visiting his historic cottage.  “In meaning, everything lives in music… it preserves the place of experiences (remember where you were when you heard the Beatles, “Yesterday”…..). 
The book is written in a “free form” style and not linear.  Throughout the essays, Boey goes deep into the hard-times as a child, and then captures moments of his own children (a young son and daughter) who he hopes to change the outcome of relationships he had in his own family.   Death plays a central role in the book, “death has a way of underlining command and solidarity. The death of a long-term resident knits the whole street together,” referring to the death of a neighbor.  Yet for Boey, he never seems to receive this coming together after the deaths of his own father or grandmother, there is no relief and understanding for him.  Yes, life is a journey, and for Boey, his journey is hard to understand, but one he continues to attempt to make meaning.  The book raises lots of emotions for the reader.  Not easy thinking through the pains and wounds inflicted by the ones we love.  Boey tries to escape yet is constantly pulled back to his roots, always hoping that the answer to the pain will heal.  Unfortunately, it rarely does.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Way of Shadows



Book 1 of The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks, is an action packed thriller!  This was a long read, but, among the futuristic / sci-fi types, I have to rate this one pretty high.  There are many stories within the story, reminding me of Game of Thrones, but the main one focuses on Azoth, an eleven year-old orphan, who has the chance to save himself from the dregs of the streets (led by Rat, an older boy who beats Azoth up for money) to work towards becoming an apprentice for Durzo.  Durzo is a wetback, a cold-blooded killer, who does not believe in love or feelings for others, there is only death.  Durzo has one request, prove yourself by killing Rat.  While he does so (cutting his ear off as proof), he finds his closest friend “Doll-Girl” left for dead, with a permanent scar on her face.  Meanwhile the other story centers on the young noble Logan Gyre (also eleven years old), who has his mother turn on him when he ascends to the lordship, at this early stage in his life.  More and more battles for the throne occur throughout the book for Logan and the entire society.  Back to Azoth, who is being trained by Durzo for a number of years under a new identity, Kylar Stern, where he has a battle with Logan Gyre, but in the end they become great friends! Durzo gets Kylar to receive “talents” (magical powers) to assist him against enemies.  During his work with Durzo, Kylar runs into Doll Face, who has a new identity as Elene.  (Lots of mistaken and hidden identity in this one, more than you can guess.)  He learns that Elene has the secret powers (kakari hidden in her room), though she was unaware, and he must knock her unconscious to save her and himself.  Logan’s woes continue as he is forced by the King to marry Jenine to secure his path to the crown, but he will lose the girl he loves. During the wedding ceremony, all breaks lose as Durzo and Roth, the most menacing of the evil-doers, forces Durzo to kill (by poisoning the food) those attending the wedding, including Logan and Jenine.  Most perish, but Logan gets away, only to see his new wife, whom he actually started to fall in love with die in his arms by the sword of Roth. Kylar finds out about all that is happening and attempts to thwart Roth’s attempt to take over the kingdom. When he arrives he is faced with fighting his mentor, Durzo, in a fight to the death!  Kylar wins, but is requested to take care of Durzo’s daughter as a last wish, which is shocking since Durzo has always maintained that feelings are not important!  Kylar finds Elene (Doll Girl) explains to her why he did what he did, and his affections towards her (he also saves Durzo’s daughter).    And then the last battle occurs …. Roth corners Kylar, calling him Azoth.  Wait… how does he know?  Well, Roth is really Rat!  Kylar notices when he sees one ear is missing!  Rat never died.  The final battle reveals …. Well, I won’t give the final ending away.  Remember there are two more books in this trilogy to follow…  You had to pay close attention to the story line involving the King and the fight for the kingdom, otherwise I enjoyed the Kylar and changing identities story.  This is worth picking up!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking



For any educator, I would highly recommend picking up Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. This book was one of the Student Affairs book club readings last year.  It really resonated with me, first, for being married to an introvert, and second having just come back from my trip to Europe.  America seems to be the land of the extroverts, people who don’t stop performing, talking, and engaging without paying attention to the needs and ways in which others live their lives. 
Cain shares her own story as an introvert and how she began making meaning of herself in relation to others.  She also highlights many of the introverted people who have impacted our society, people from Rosa Parks and her decision not to move from the seat on the bus, to Dale Carnegie who was one of the most successful salesmen in the early 1900s (who started his own public speaking course to other introverts), to Eleanor Roosevelt (who helped her husband FDR as President of the USA from behind the scenes), to Warren Buffet (the investment guru) and Steve Wozniak (the creator of the first Apple computer).  All of these people gained their energy internally and needed time to re-energize before getting in large groups again. 

Cain shares information from child psychologists who work with children to better understand what their needs are in relation to being in groups with others and whether it is nature or nurture that makes them the way they are.  Cain explores best ways for introverts to prepare for public speaking, a little at a time!  Other topics include:  How did one Wall Street investor not lose their investments during the crash of 2008 (using the introversion they had within themselves); how to respond to ‘wins’ as a “reward-orientated” person; Asian-Americans and how their upbringing has made them more introverted than most other American born people; how to become more extroverted than you really are (aka Professor Brian Little of Harvard, who was one of the most popular faculty); and the wife who didn’t like her husband’s desire for a dinner party a week. 
Cain provides excellent data to create more success for introverts, but in many ways this book is best read for the extroverts, who seemingly don’t understand the “why/how/what” of introversion.  Additionally, her information shared on how to assist young children who don’t understand how they get their energies and why they seemingly can’t get in the conversation is exceedingly helpful for high school teachers, parents, and athletic team coaches who all have some level of responsibility for children in a group setting.  I love to be pushed to think outside of my own style, and this book really does that for me.  All managers and leaders would greatly benefit from this book.  I highly encourage it.  We will need the extroversion compendium in the near future!  Pick this one up!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes



A fun, easy, and enjoyable read…. The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes (yes, the daily cartoon favorite) by Bill Watterson.  The book is a compilation of the daily and Sunday comics captured in newspapers.  Calvin, the six year old mischievous boy and his toy tiger, Hobbes, who for Calvin is alive in his imagination as his best friend.  All other characters in the story don’t see Hobbes being alive, just a stuffed animal toy.  The comics actually appeared in the paper from late 1985 through late 1995.  This compilation of stories center around the following: Calvin in the winter (Santa preparation, toys he wants, and playing in the snow); Calvin not wanting to go to school (and doing whatever he could to get out of attending); Calvin terrorizing the last baby-sitter who will watch him (Rosalyn); Calvin and his relationship with his Mom, Dad, and classmates; Calvin never doing his homework and getting in trouble for it; Calvin as Stupendous Man; and finally, Calvin creating the G.R.O.S.S club with Hobbes.  The stories are fun and show the troubles of being a 6 year old boy with lots of energy and not wanting to conform to what his parents say he should be doing as all he wants to do … is have fun!  Mostly having fun at the expense of others.  Not much to be taken seriously here and every once in a while Calvin shows a sensitive side, which is heartwarming to see in the very few times it is shown.  I love the strips that show him getting caught off guard on something and having to give in to his parents demands… reminds me of two other young boys (my own) when they were six, yes a most difficult year.  Fun read!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Purification of the Heart: Signs Symptoms, and Cures of the Spiritual Diseases of the Heart



I learned a great deal about the Muslim community and what the religious leaders expect from the faithful in Purification of the Heart: Signs Symptoms, and Cures of the Spiritual Diseases of the Heart by Hamza Yusuf.  
The book describes how each of the various spiritual diseases which can occur in society stem from our own weaknesses as humans.  With each weakness, Yusuf draws upon the Quran, which is said to be verbally revealed by God to Muhammad.  In this reading, the author shares a disease, followed by ways in which the disease afflicts and suggestions on how to remove the evil.  He does note that it is not unusual that the youth have problems with some of these challenges, but as an adult, especially over 40, one must live life with full purity.  Unlike Christian belief that people can just repent and be loved by God, one must live life with a keen sense of the expectation of God to attain eternal life. 

The list of diseases include: Miserliness; Wantonness; Hatred; Iniquity; Love of the World (having things – too many); Envy; Blameworthy Modesty; Fantasizing; Fear of Poverty; Ostentation; Relying on Other than God; Displeasure with the Divine Decree; Seeking Reparation; False Hope; Negative Thoughts; Vanity; Fraud;  Anger; Heedlessness; Rancor; Boasting and Arrogance; Displeasure with Blame; Antipathy toward death; Obliviousness to Blessings; and Derision.  The last three chapters share comprehensive treatment plans and actions to purify the Heart, giving great suggestions moving forward as a Muslim.  And finally, the book ends with the roots of the diseases.  There are a number of appendixes with historical citations and sources for further reading.  The work is steeped in history and is a cornerstone in the thinking and actions for practicing Muslims.  It provided much insight for me and I would encourage all to read to better understand Muslim beliefs.  Thanks for suggesting it.  Very helpful!

 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Let the Great World Spin



Enjoyed reading Colum McCann’s book Let the Great World Spin the past two days.  Once I began it, it was hard to put down.  The story begins with the real life feat of tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s crossing of the Word Trade Center Towers, 110 stories up, performed in 1974.  All of the people in lower Manhattan stayed glued to his tremendous acrobatic dance in the sky as police and other local agencies attempted to get him down.  But the feat itself was not the main focus of the novel, but served as an underlying metaphor for how our world spins daily, around events, which has many of us connected, without even knowing it.  As a reader, we are introduced to 4 other stories of interesting people, their histories, and how they all watched Philippe’s spectacular crossing, or were later involved in the aftermath (his court case).  It isn’t until more than half-way through the book that the connections begin to come together. 
The characters are rich, deep and true, connected in a way that illustrates just how small this world is and how we never know whom we need the most or who needs us the most.  The characters include:  the Irish born brothers, one a religious monk who uprooted to NY and the other visiting him and arriving to USA for the first time; the judge (and his wife), who administers Petit’s sentencing, whom grieve over the loss of their son in the Vietnam War; a married artistic couple who struggle for years with alcohol/drug addiction; two generations of prostitutes (mother / daughter) and the illegitimate children; and a Guatemalan woman who works at a rehabilitation center for the elderly.  Somehow all of these people become connected, some take actions (non-intentional) that impact the lives of others and some don’t take action and miss out on the potential for impact on other’s lives. 
McCann has written a brilliant piece, moving and riveting.  The story is exceedingly well-written and makes me realize as I walk down a NY street just how close I am to so many, noting the importance of every little decision I make or don’t make, could have consequences that I’ll never know.  The ending takes place 22 years later as one of the prostitute’s daughters, now in her early 30s reconnects with one of the main characters at the end of their life as she reflects on how the world continues to spin, even at the end of one person’s life.  Life is a tight rope, crossing the wire without falling is the triumph in one’s life.  Buckling a bit with the tremors of the bouncing line is the struggle, and yes, we are often alone doing so, but we should note the person on our left and right, maybe they are walking by us for a reason and can potentially help making meaning of the spinning world….

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Plot Against America



A pretty ingenious story-line in The Plot Against America by Philip Roth.  Roth uses his own childhood as the backdrop for this story which becomes non-fiction.  Roth, a Jewish boy, growing up across the river from NYC in New Jersey lives with his parents and brother at the time when Hitler takes power in Germany. 
The entire story follows the actual real-life storyline until the election of 1940, where President Roosevelt eyes re-election, and here is where the story becomes “non-fiction,” when FDR loses to Charles Lindbergh (the aviation hero of the 1940s), a known ally to the German thinking and a believer of American isolationism from protecting the world.  Lindbergh’s first act as President is to sign a treaty that prohibits the US to get involved in the war in Europe. 

Philip’s dad, a devout Jewish leader in the neighborhood begins to feel the sudden change by leaders who look to hold Jewish citizens down by restricting their rights and opportunities.  The Roth family are split.  Philip’s aunt and brother are sympathetic to the “no-war” approach of Lindbergh, while the rest of the family is fearful and Philip’s cousin, Alvin, known to believe that Lindbergh’s legacy will mean the end to the Jewish population goes to Canada to fight against the Nazi’s in Europe.  After a year or so in the Canadian army, Alvin falls on a grenade and losses one of his legs.  Philip’s aunt, Evelyn, marries one of the Jewish leaders, who sympathizes with Lindbergh’s politics in hopes that it saves the American Jews.  Society continues to turn on the American Jews, scattering communities and leaders in their community by moving them apart to far-reaching parts of the US and removing employment opportunities that looked like a lock before the elections.  
The world continues to fall further apart and President Lindbergh disappears after flying his plane across the US.  We later learn that Lindbergh’s history with the Nazi’s appears to reach back to when his young son was kidnapped and later found dead outside his home in New Jersey (that is a true part of the story, that his son was kidnapped from their home and later found murdered, but no Nazi connection).  In the story, Philip’s aunt Evelyn believes that Lindbergh’s kidnapped son lived and was taken by the Nazi’s and raised in the party, hence why Lindbergh had to cooperate with Hitler.  The story shares a scary view of American life where the Nazi party could have direct influence on the way our society reacted during the war.  Roth’s youth and the images that it creates in the reader is ‘spot on’ and gives a true picture of the fear that one imagines feeling at that age.  Well written and captivating story.  Wish the ending had a bit more on what happened after the Germans took Lindbergh etc., we are left envisioning America in agreement with the Nazis.  Maybe a sequel?

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Speaker for the Dead



Not all sci-fi’s are considered equal, especially sequels.  In Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead (a follow-up to one of my favorites, Ender’s Game) we learn what happens to Ender, many years later.  At the end of the last book, Ender is transporting “precious cargo” which turns out to be the Hive Queen, which he looks to bring to a new planet, Lusitania, which  has many anthropologists and biologists (of that time) which are studying a species called the ‘piggies’ on the land.  The leading scientists are fighting diseases with the two “superstars” dying before they can create a vaccine for themselves, but their daughter, Novinha, lives and as she agrees takes over the work of her parents.  She faces challenges of her peers in keeping the secret of the virus which the piggies want for their own purposes.  To keep them at bay, Novinha calls for “a speaker of the dead” (who happens to be Ender, or Andrew Wiggin – you need to read the book to understand the distinction, gets complicated) for help.  There are a series of characters between the worlds Ender lived in, pre-Lusitania (where he and his sister live) and the world that Novinha is attempting to save.  Ender arrives through time travel (eclipsing twenty-two year’s time) to assist Novinha.  The Hive Queen comes to life to challenge the group and Ender, now known as Andrew Wiggins (going back to his original self), to see who will live in the next generation. 
There is more to this one, but I lost a great deal of interest with the “back and forth” of the past/present and future, Ender/Wiggins and or Andrew, plus Novinha and her parent’s death, her love affair and mothering of her friend’s children (who died by the virus) and of course the whole meaning of what a speaker for the dead really is for this book.  Sci fi fans may love this one, I was bored and confused and had to re-read sections of the story, always a sign that you are losing interest.  So I may not be the best judge of character for responding to this one… but in the end, hoping there is not yet another return for Ender post Lusitania. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus



The philosophy of the absurd is introduced in Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus.  To begin, one needs to know the story of Sisyphus, a character in historic Greek mythology, who was condemned by the leaders of the time to a meaningless task of rolling a boulder up a steep mountain.  The result was a repetition of the same task over and over again, because the boulder would then roll down.  The tale underscores Camus’ claim about the absurdity found in this life, the challenges, the unexplainable events, and the humanity within us all. Camus spends time describing the life we live in (and the things we face) and man’s thoughts on trying to understand our world, a world of “absurdity.”  
In our existence of the absurdity, he asks the question, by facing what we do, does it mean that our civilization should accept the act of suicide?, a chance to escape the unanswerable and devastating elements of life through taking one’s life?  Camus shares a resounding, NO!  Life does have a meaning, even if formalized religion or the personal commitment in a higher being is not within a person’s belief.  Camus notes that “killing yourself amounts to confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it.  A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world,” one we all experience on some level.  Camus offers lots of explanations as to why the absurdity should not provide rationale for ending one’s life.  He furthers his arguments through drawing support from the philosophies of fellow writers, such as Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard to further his value-driven thinking. 

Camus examines the absurd man through the lens of Don Juan, an actor and warrior.  And who is the absurd creator?  The artist… as he notes, "If the world were clear, art would not exist."  And then it all comes back to Sisyphus.  The endless madness that we face, rather rolling a stone up the hill to see it fall, or the human condition of failure and rejection, yet Sisyphus keeps rolling that stone up the hill…. Shouldn’t we?  Camus is a brilliant writer, from drama, novels, essays and short stories, he captures human life, simple yet complicated.  This essay gives reason to contemplate the importance of life, one person at a time.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Truest Thing About You



David Lomas’s The Truest Thing About You is a book on reflection…. on how one’s life connects with what their religious/spiritual side, specifically as a Christian.  Those exploring their journey of faith development will be pushed to reflect on their own lives while reading this book. 

Lomas, a pastor for the Reality Church in San Francisco, CA, is a young man, recently married and shares the challenges and joys that are inherent in the struggle of life.  The key message of the book is that we should not believe we are our jobs, our relationships, or the things we have, we should dig deep through reflection on what are inner core represents to determine what the truest thing is for each of us.  Lomas draws from authors/role models from various walks of life, to include:  noted writer C.S. Lewis; Saint Catherine of Siena; Soren Kirkegaard, and NYU’s own faculty extraordinaire Kwame Appiah.  I love his reflection on why “community” in our society today.  He notes: 

… it means that no matter what profession we find ourselves in – no matter what we do – we live by a different set of rules.  Whether we are raising kids, banking, making sculpture, studying, or practicing law, we see ourselves being sent into our jobs as stewards of the time, talents, and resources that a higher being has endowed and gifted us with.  Culture, simply is what happens when humans live together, from the smallest to the most sprawling city.  … it’s what happens when we contribute to our families and society, it’s what happens when we’re kind to strangers, when we honor the dignity of the simplest job, and when we look for opportunities to serve others. 

His final passage reinforces his over message:

You will not find your identity in what you have, but in who has you.  You will not find your identity in what you do, but in what has been done for you.  And you will not find your identity in what you desire, but in who has desired – at infinite cost to Himself – a relationship with you…

Truer words never spoken.  A different type of book for sure, but again, illustrates the complexity and commitment of the NYU student to be passionate about being committed to self-awareness and knowledge of something bigger than a dollar bill.  Great insights and quick read in those 200 pages.   

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Corpse Walker



In my opinion, The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu gives the best insight into the life of the poorest Chinese people who were caught in the line of fire between communist leaders and the counter revolutionists.  In this real life series of stories, Yiwu interviews hundreds of the poorest member of the communities that were deprived of many resources.  The book contains 27 of the interviews he conducted, in actual interview format. 
Yiwu builds relationships with the cast of individuals through hours of meetings.  This is a dream book for any qualitative social-scientist in how to gather the feelings, emotions, and experiences of peers who have had the hardest lives imaginable.  Yiwu does a masterful job of uncovering the bloodshed, famine, and destruction of a person to the lowest possible moments of existence.  Each chapter is named after the individual being interviewed, most all based on the profession the person had in the community: grave digger; abbot; retired official; safecracker; composer; migrant worker, etc. 

The commonality in each is how they all seemingly were committed members of the Communist party and somehow through a love interest, needing money to exist, or being turned on by another, were turned in to the local officials for not supporting the government.  What happened next usually resulted in imprisonment, torture, the murdering of family members, and/or loss of all material possessions.  The cruelty is horrific and the detail of forced abortions, bodily harm, rapes, and starvation reveal the stories never told in history books. 
Additionally, for those who were alive during the student uprisings in Tiananmen Square twenty-six years ago bring back vivid pictures of the student who stood in front of the tank defying authority.  This turn of events caught on tv for the world to see, started a new awareness of cruelty and human devastation to the leaders of a country that needed to be told.  Communist leaders killed those who might tell of the stories revealed by Yiwu, who himself was terrorized and nearly escaped death himself many times.  We get a glimpse into real people and Yiwu does it in a way that raises the hair on your arms and brings tears to one’s eyes.  Moving book.  A book that must be read to remind all that this happens every day somewhere in this world.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Dead Beat



Dead Beat is the seventh book of the eleven book Dresden Files series.  Dead Beat is a very long read, but luckily, you can read it without reading all of the previous books. 
The lead character is Harry Dresden, a detective living in Chicago, who also happens to be a wizard.  In this book, Harry, seen as the outcast wizard, is challenged to save the life of his mortal friend, a woman whom he has a huge crush on.  To save her, Harry makes a deal with Mavra, a villainess from the last book, to find the “the word of Kemmler,” the information that would help teach Marva about the necromancers, the ability to bring people back from the dead! Harry faces many old demons in his journey to get the Kemmler information, with the clock ticking. And of course to add more to the eeriness of the book this is all set only two days before Halloween.  There is a ton of battles between Harry and his arch-rivals and even with the White Council, a group he eventually is asked to join based on his past battles. 

What I enjoy about the Dresden story is the mixed worlds (mortals and wizards), and how the mortals have no idea that the wizards exist, but are reliant on the good will of the wizards to keep the community safe.  Harry Dresden is a complicated free-spirit who is unafraid of the challenges that face him seemingly at every turn of drama in Chicago.  He doesn’t fit in with his peers, but in the end defends justice for all.  The story had lots if intricacies and twists, always keeping the reader on the edge of their seat wondering if Dresden will escape the next challenger for power to destroy the world.  While he isn’t “human” he does have the feelings that mortals have, even falling in love!  I’m sure the next book will bring Dresden and the elusive Karin Murphy closer to falling in love.  

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza



Gloria Anzauldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza is a wonderful book that allows the reader to enter the world of being in between.  The author offers two parts to the book (prose and poetry) as she relays her autobiography of growing up in the lands between Mexico and the U.S. (south of California).  The community in these lands were disadvantaged by changes in American policy that held the natives from crossing the border. 
In the first part of the book, there are a number of chapters focused on the historical background on how the Chicano community was formed from their native ancestors (3500 BC).  Anzauldua depicts much of the ruthlessness that the Chicano community experienced, such as the farmers who continually lost money against the American purchasing economy.  Anzualda also emphasizes the impact of the Catholic faith in the community as well as the male dominated culture.  With this background, she delves into her personal journey in Mexico as a lesbian woman, where both homosexuality and women were oppressed, disadvantaged, and recipients of aggressive behavior.

Her approach in writing, melding both Spanish and English language throughout most all of her stories, made it difficult for non-bilingual readers to engage in the entirety of the book.  I enjoyed the two very different styles of prose and the short poems throughout the second half of the book.  Anzualda’s use of intermixing language, form of style, story-telling through vivid description, and at times loaded word choice provide a raw experience for the reader.  Clearly there is a great deal of pain in her upbringing, and as a reader, I felt it throughout this moving piece of writing.  I highly recommend Borderlands as it highlights a piece of American history that most people are not even aware of.  As the US community becomes even more diverse with a larger Hispanic/Latino/Chicano community, it is critically important that this group within our society have their story told and ingrained on the history of the nation.        

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Game: Penetrating the secret society of pickup artists



Every time I finish an RA Favorite book, I reflect a moment and say, “I wonder why this was chosen?” Today my only reaction is, REALLY?!  I mistakenly missed watching the first Met’s playoff game to waste my time reading Neil Strauss’s book The Game: Penetrating the secret society of pickup artists. This story is essentially a terrible reality show that has been given way too much hype turned into a book.  If I was supposed to be entertained by reading this book, I missed the point.   In summary, this book can be stored in the hallway closet and never taken out.  Skip it, as this story has been so overplayed in cheap movies and in 10th grade high school conversations.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Slapstick



I have read several of Kurt Vonnegut’s books, but my latest read, Slapstick, may be my favorite.
The book opens in an interesting way as Vonnegut presents some of his own life experience, including divulging personal family issues such as the “distant” closeness between he and his brother and the death of his sister, Alice, who suffered from cancer.  In a very strange twist of life, Alice’s husband dies in a well-publicized train accident, two days before her death.  Vonnegut adopts her boys and raises them as his own. 

It is with this personal backdrop that Vonnegut begins the story of Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, who is writing his autobiography.  Clearly there are references made in the opening to have the reader interpret the main characters in his story as Vonnegut and his sister, who in the story are twins (Eliza and Wilbur).  Their strange upbringing included being isolated from the rest of the world, except for their private doctor, housekeepers, and other servants in the mansion.  The two pretended to be mentally-challenged, speaking in gibberish and throwing feed at each other.  When people left them alone, they read, studied, and learned about everything they could get their hands on.  Finally they “come-clean” and note their intelligence, though it doesn’t work for Eliza, she is institutionalized, Wilbur goes to prep school and eventually receives a PhD from Harvard.
The siblings’ hope while growing up is to end loneliness, a noble charge considering their situations.   Wilbur uses the “loneliness campaign” for a run at the Presidency, which he wins.  But this is the least of his problems, as the world faces two devastating plagues that cause destruction and devastate humans on earth.  As a result, the world nearly runs out of oil and the Chinese people work to get smaller and smaller (so as to use less of the world’s resources), but in the process get so small that they become extinct!  In between all of the challenges facing society, Wilbur proposes to give everyone a new middle name, his sister is killed in an avalanche, and all the while, Wilbur still wants to rid society of loneliness.  Isn’t that in the end what we strive for? 

If you don’t get the book, you may need to familiarize yourself with the comedy of Laurel and Hardy, which he refers to at the beginning of the book; between the “hi-ho’s” at the end most passages and the yearning to connect to others.  In the end, Vonnegut’s social commentary on our time seems like a comedy.  Well, it is more sad (death, destruction, illness, the absurd) than we choose to believe but if we don’t laugh we would have to cry…. more often than we would like.   From the story:  “Love is where you find it. I think it is foolish to go looking for it, and I think it can often be poisonous.”  And it can also be the opposite, which is the comedy of it all.  Nothing is what we want it to be, as Shakespeare said, “all the world is a stage”… we are the actors, so let’s enjoy what we can as there are too many things that force the reality of our eventual demise.  Vonnegut’s work is complex, but with simple meanings, and always making fun of the absurdity that life can be.  Worth the read!