Friday, June 24, 2016

The Good Lord Bird

Always great to read an RA Favorite book written by an NYU faculty member.  I continue to be amazed at how often NYU is mentioned in a book, or an author who is an alum or faculty member.  I guess there is a lot to write about being here in NYC and at NYU.  The book, The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride, is a historical satire of a young African-American boy, who dresses as a girl (to hide his identity) during the antislavery time under John Brown’s leadership to free the black race.  The story is told through Henry’s eyes looking back as an old man.  Henry remembers how it all began for him as a slave boy from Kansas, who interacts with John Brown, who is visiting the area.  During an altercation with Henry’s master, Brown takes Henry, whom he thinks is a girl (Henrietta) and good luck charm from the region.  Each of the chapters follow Henry’s movement from Kansas, losing Brown for a while and being under the control of another master.  Henry interacts with Frederick Douglas, an interesting tête–à–tête where Douglas tries and get “Henrietta” drunk, though Henry’s tolerance with alcohol far outlasts Douglas!  (He notes the alcohol in his parts was much stronger.)  His adventures are funny, crude, and satirical under the framework of an abolitionist movement trying to free slaves.  I listened to this one on tape and enjoyed the language, the characters, and the storyline.  Pay attention to the language or you may miss a laugh or two.  A great recreation of the Brown story.  I visited Harper’s Ferry often when I was working at Catholic U and enjoyed the rich history of the raids that occurred in October 1859.  It always takes the sympathies and actions of one person to change the plight of the oppressed. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Bad Feminist

I’ve enjoyed the last few books that RAs have recommended for me to read.  This one in particular was a good “broadening of my perspective” type of book.  I have not read a great deal of feminist books, so delving into one that was in the “bad” camp of how-to-be a feminist, was helpful.  Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, is a collection of essays that the author has written over a period of time.  Gay focuses most of her essays on “entertainment culture” through the lens of gender, sexuality, and race.  While I don’t feel completely the same on all of her opinions, I certainly was moved by her insights to say, wow, yes there is a different perspective to think about.  Gay presents the concept of being “flawed” and hence why she may not totally understand or accept the thinking of others.  I am in complete agreement of her argument.  Our journeys are so different, how can I judge you when my experience in no way reflects what you have lived.  She notes. “I am not trying to say I am right.  I am just trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself.”  Amen!  Shouldn’t we all be trying to do the same!  Gay discloses in a few of her essays a brutal sexual assault she experienced at the age of 12, with a group of male on-lookers.  I can’t imagine the pain and how it has impacted her life.  I enjoyed her story on racism when an older white woman complained to her about the international renters who lived in their apartment and looking for Gay to join in on reinforcing a stereotype, which Gay did not.  Great response, loved it!  In so many ways, most of us would have just agreed and allowed the bonding over a racist comment.  True to her actions, Gay did not.  Gay rails on Chris Brown, the movies The Help and Django Unchained, television shows and popular songs like Blurred Lines and Yeezus, and the entertainment channel BET.  She gives specific examples for her discomfort – all the way to utter despair.  She is thorough in her approach and eloquent in her prose.   I had never heard of her before, but promise I will read more of her work.  I was really engaged in her assessments of the culture we live in and how the celebs and media greatly impact our thinking, and not always for the best.  Great read!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Song of Achilles

Enter the Greek ages and a re-casting of the story of Achilles in The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.  A recently published book (2012), Miller focuses on the budding relationship of the two main characters, Patroclus (the exiled son of a King based on an incident) and the warrior, Achilles.  Patroclus a young prince is removed from his homeland after he accidently kills a young boy who is taunting him, when he pushes him and the boy falls and hits head on the rocks.  His father, who never is that connected to his son, thinking he is weak and scrawny, sends him far away to the land of orphaned boys.  It is there that the connection between Achilles and Patroclus begins when Achilles takes him under his wing.  A strong friendship is formed between the two, which later leads to a much more physical bond, a love between the two.  There is a sensual and physical love that grows deep, though Achilles mother is steadfastly against it.  The two are summoned to Troy when it is learned that Helen has been kidnapped.  Achilles joins the front lines as Patroclus is hidden in the background by Achilles who is always keeping a watchful eye on his beloved.  The war endures for a number of years and the two face challenges of other warriors, Aeschylus, Agamemnon (the God of gods), and a young woman whom they capture in one of the raids, who Patroclus befriends and teaches her the native language.  The final battle occurs when Patroclus is forced to be in battle and it is the worst possible outcome for Achilles.  Miller paints a beautiful story of romance and the seduction of the heart.  Between the depths of character development, she adds the historical battles/wars, feuding leaders and Gods and the expected breaking of the heart.  Well written and worth your time to read.  (I listened to this one.)  She makes Greek literature accessible to today’s audience.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The 48 Laws of Power

An incredibly creative approach for Robert Greene in his book The 48 Laws of Power.  Greene presents the intricacies of how one can best gain power from others, with 48 different ways to approach it.  The model of presentation for each law is as follows: listing of the law; motes related to the judgment for the law; transgression(s) of the law; observance of the law; the keys to power regarding the law; and what the reversal of the law would look like.  What makes the explanation so good?  Greene draws from three thousand years of examples from leaders from every aspect of society, though mainly those rulers from the thrones (or other elected officials).  His favorites to draw from include: Alexander the Great, Machiavelli, Mao Tse-tung, Talleyrand, Napoleon, Henry Kissinger, PT Barnum, Joseph Duveen (art collector), Muhammed Ali, Abraham Lincoln, Louis XIV, Sen no Rikyu, and many more.  History enthusiasts will love the stories of the various leaders and how they were able to maneuver for success in their plight to the top.  So what were some of my favorite “Laws” to gain power?  Never outshine the Master, Always Say Less Than Necessary, Use Absence to Increase Respect and Honor, Infection: Avoid the Unhappy and Unlucky.  Greene’s premise is that we all want power, so if you don’t believe in that as a guiding principle for your success in whatever role you play in your profession, you probably won’t enjoy the book.  But if you take it for a history lesson, and what to look to avoid in a leader, enjoy.  Again, I thought Greene does an outstanding job of drawing from the various leaders and how they got there, stayed there, or avoided getting their head cut off.  I will say it is a very long read so you could just read the chapters that interest you and call it finished, though I did read each chapter.  Worth reading from my perspective. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential

I was excited to read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential when I picked it up (I have always been a fan of the elite cooks who are on TV).  I was also hoping to gain insights to the best combination of foods, tips on some menus, and the experiences behind the swinging door into the kitchen.  The reader gets a ton of the latter, rather than the former, though one chapter did give me information on when not to go out to dinner (which night of the week) and what not to order on those nights.  My first job while in high school was working at a restaurant and many of the characters Bourdain presents were employees that I  interacted with, they are attracted to this kind of work, for sure.  Bourdain begins the book with his early childhood memories of how he “fell in love with food,” blames it on his first oyster experience.  Bourdain, a rich-spoiled brat who attended Vassar, quickly fell into drugs, sex and laziness.  He eventually dropped out of Vassar and entered the Culinary Art Institute, where he learned many lessons related to food, and then he perfected it while working at P-town and then top NYC restaurants, though he went through a ton of jobs.  I guess that’s what happens when you are using cocaine on a regular basis.  Bourdain shares the inner secrets of how to stay afloat getting the most out of leftovers, the many inspirational leaders / colleagues he worked with, and the not so smart ones too!  Working in a kitchen is not for the weak and lazy.  It is an extremely tough road to ride, the heat in the kitchen, the late nights, working on every holiday, and being in really close quarters with others makes for some really difficult relationships with peers.  While Bourdain is not the quintessential protagonist (all around good guy), he does have the fight in him to not be bulled over.  The book is less about the food in the restaurant and more about the personalities, the environment, and Bourdain’s experience making it through to where he is today.  Not exactly what I expected, but an interesting read nonetheless.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Boys in the Boat

There is nothing better than finishing an outstanding book from the list of RA Favorites.  This one was one of the better books I have read in quite some time.  The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown is the real life story of the 1936 Olympic Gold winning crew team from the University of Washington (UW).  Brown met one of the members from the UW team, Joe Rantz, when he visited his home one day to learn more about the history of the team a year before his death and 70+ years after the Olympics.  George only agreed to tell the story if he in fact told the whole story, and not just about him.  So began the initial journey back to the days before the depression in the Western US, where a poor young son (Joe) was born into a family in which he lost his mother at a very young age, had his aunt become his stepmother, be removed from the family because of the four new children and the inability for his family to provide for him.  Joe went on his own as a teenager, made it to college, joined the crew team and entered the dream of a lifetime.  The author does an impeccable job of capturing the relationships among the men, the challenges of the day by painting the bleak picture of a stark world, and even the perspiration that occurred with every stroke the team made on the journey.  As a reader I was totally engrossed in the various battles for making the team, competing against UC Berkeley, Cornell, and eventually the world at the 1936 games.  But the most important aspect of the book was the backdrop in which the world was in the midst of dealing, the developing Nazi nation in Germany led by Adolf Hitler.  The stories fit perfect and throughout I was moved by the emotional upheaval of the men fighting to win, pay for college, and understand the world was being besieged by a new type of enemy, which would be much more known after the Olympics.  The lessons I learned about World War II were enhanced by having a better context of the foundation that Hitler was developing through the propaganda war that his staff was creating for the rest of the world.  This is an outstanding book, presenting the glamour of athletic triumph and the various stories of the individual who comprised the team.   I will read this book again.  I hear it is a movie and while not a big fan of the big screen, this will be one to watch!  Read this one!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman

First, Happy Anniversary to my wife!  26 years.  Didn’t have much time to read tonight so picked up a children’s book from the RA Favorite list, Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman.  It is a very brief story of Gracie, a young African American seven year old who had a great imagination and loved to play make believe parts.  In class one day, the teacher asks the children, who  would like to play the part of Peter Pan, Gracie immediately tells her friends she would like to do so.  Her classmate Raj says, “you can’t play Peter Pan, you are a girl” while her other classmate Natalie says “you can’t play Peter Pan you are black”.  Later that evening at home she tells her mother and grandmother and they adamantly disagree.  Over the weekend her grandmother takes her to the theatre to watch Romeo and Juliet, cast with an African American Juliet.  The experience reinforced what her mother and grandmother said, that anyone can play any part they want.  The next two days she practices for the role of Peter Pan.  When it is time for the audition, everyone votes for her as Peter Pan!  The moral of the story, don’t let stereotypes and the negative messages of others stop you from following your dreams!  Some great messages about perceived gender roles and issues of race.  Lots to think about in this very short story.  The illustrations add to the story as well.   

Monday, June 13, 2016

Margaret Edson’s W:t

Whenever I meet with a Tisch student I am never sure if I will get a book or a play.  This time it was a play.  Margaret Edson’s W:t is a riveting story of a fifty year-old college professor who is stricken with stage IV ovarian cancer.   Vivian Bearing is a renowned John Donne scholar who over the course of the play, throughout her eight-week trial chemotherapy treatment, declines quickly.  The clinical fellow at her bedside is a former student who took her toughest undergraduate course on Donne.  The two exchange their experience with Donne, interspersing couplets of prose all trying to understand death and the demise of a person.  Vivian agrees to the experimental process knowing that there is limited chance of surviving. This strong-willed woman is succumbing to the worst that cancer can throw at someone.  Vivian’s transformation is all so frightening true in stage IV victims.  Not being a John Donne scholar, I only could find the surface level of his work to Vivian’s demise.  Hard to imagine the staging of this play, but the dialogue is absolutely on-point and I could feel the pain and anguish as Vivian begins to realize her pen is not mightier than the fight with cancer.  Two cancer reads in a week are about my outer limit of dealing with the disease.  The playwright makes her points through the story.

Friday, June 10, 2016

A Time for Dancing

There are books that you learn from,  books that you are entertained by, books you read that you will never remember, and books that make you cry (lots of other types too).  But this RA favorite is the former, a tear-inducing book.  A Time for Dancing by Davida Hurwin is the story of two best-friend seventeen year olds.  Julie and Sam grow up outside San Francisco.  Sam, a product of divorced parents, a mom who pays her little attention due to her burgeoning romance with a new man, and her Dad who has remarried and has started a new family.  Sam has her best friend, Julie, to rely on.  They do everything together and are each other’s “One and Only” bestie.  Julie is coming off a relationship in which she was dumped by her boyfriend of a few years, and now he is dating another student, while Sam is all consumed by dance lessons and doing well in school.  All of life comes to a “halt,” after a few months of doctor appointments for back/hip pain, Julie learns that she has cancer, stage 4.  The remainder of the story captures Julie’s struggles with chemo, and her eventual decision not to continue the treatments based on the side effects.  Simultaneously, Sam fights her guilt with Julie’s inability to sustain the relationship in the same way she did pre-cancer, her on-going battles with her parents, and a major slide in academic commitment with the various challenges of the time.  Julie makes one triumphant return on the dance floor at a competition with her “one and only” as her dance partner.  Yes, tears flow as the savagery called cancer destroys life as we know it.  The book doesn’t provide the type of depth that Stuart Scott’s book does, as this is more of a young adult book, but still pretty raw.  Life is not easy.  OK book, probably more of an after school special type of TV watch, if you remember those days.  I guess I’m dating myself a bit.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain, A Nandi Tale by Verna Aardema

It’s always fun to read a children’s book that contains a thoughtful message and great pictures to brighten your imagination while also teaching children the importance of our earth’s greatest resources.  Welcome to the world of Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain, A Nandi Tale by Verna Aardema.  The brief tale is based on folklore from South Africa regarding the plains that contained wild animals and farming.  The plains were gorgeous, full of beauty, greenery, flowers, flowing rivers, and animals who lived the land fully. Then came the drought!  Everything started to turn brown, animals fled the area, or started to die.  But young Ki-pat who watched the herd was not to be deterred.  His animals were hungry and he was unsure what to do, until an eagle flew by and dropped a feather close to where he was standing.  Ki-pat made a bow and took the feather to make an arrow of it as he believed this was a feather to help change the weather.  So he aimed it at a passing cloud - BAM, he hit the cloud, out clapped the thunder and down came the rain, and it kept coming down.  It changed the color of the grass, back to green, the riverbanks flowed, and the animals could start to eat again.  Everything changed back to what it was, which led to Ki=pat finding a wife, and having a little Ki=pat son of his own, who in turn watched the herd.   A true “circle of life” story!  The message of nature helping itself is right on target!  Great for little children and adults to remember how important and precious the rain is for us.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Super Sad True Love Story

A political satire that reflects the future of the American society is captured in Gary Shteyngrat’s Super Sad True Love Story.  The story is built around the diaries of the main character, Lenny Abramov, a 39 year-old single Caucasian of Russian Jewish heritage and his love interest, Eunice Park, a 23 year old Korean woman, whose family emigrated from Korea and is financially secure.  The author uses the diary writings of Lenny and the on-line posts of Eunice as a way to capture the relationship of the two characters.  Lenny is an out of shape, middle class man who leaves the US to escape to find more to life by going to Rome.  Lenny falls in love instantly with Eunice and invites her to come back to the US by offering her a place to live, which she eventually accepts, even though at first she is “grossed out” by him.  Eunice over time begins to fall in love with Lenny, and over time introduces him to her family, who don’t see the match!   It is a strange match for sure, as she is interested in making Lenny fit her mold.  He will do anything for her.  As the relationship evolves so does the grim political situation where America is in fiscal disarray falling to their arch-rivals the Chinese, who have the US financial clout and are holding them hostage in an economic way.  The US government is trying to discourage unrest and promote consumerism.  The diaries of Lenny and the emails of Eunice serve as a reminder of capturing the moment and later serve as a reminder of how life is now being presented in the mainstream through social media, where “everyone knows one’s inner life story.”  Things get worse as the economy bottoms out, Lenny introduces Eunice to his 75 year old “youthful” boss who is a big-wig in a health related business to keep people looking and feeling young, and war seemingly has broken out in the New York City area (and both Lenny and Eunice’s family can’t be found).  Will Lenny and Eunice’s love withstand the trials and tribulations?   Will the US fall to China?  Can people keep their youthfulness?  There are some laugh out loud (LOL) moments in this one.  Lenny and Eunice’s relationship is quite non-traditional and demonstrates the lengths someone will go for staying young, getting the means they need to live their life, and trying to find out what love really is…  It is an acquired sense of humor and you will like it or not.   Kept me turning the page, so I enjoyed it.   A big departure from the recent reads I have had.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

An Experiment in Love

Finished another RA Favorite book, An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel.  The story provides a glimpse into the life of Carmel McBain, a young English woman who enters a prestigious London University living in a residence hall with other classmates during the late 1960s, the age of the rise of feminism. The author uses the method of weaving the main character’s current life and many of the pieces that led to her coming to the college, from elementary school through high school both within the Catholic education system, which was quite conservative and leads to her current reaction to a new found freedom, sex and rebuffing family wishes.  The other members of the friend group (Karina, Julieanne, Susan, and Lynette) grapple with their own coming of age during the era of “free love” each seemingly finding a beau and deciding whether to get on the pill, joining a community group fighting an issue, or determining their own place in this “man’s world” of their time.  Struggles with money haunt Carmel, as does self-image issues, leading to a battle with anorexia after her boyfriend of two years dumps her.  The reader enters Carmel’s friend difficulties and how hard it is in the time to create your own path.  The story ends with a strange twist and for me, doesn’t really come to any closure.  Maybe that was the point to enter the lives of a group of people and then step out of it?  It took me a while, but I really started wanting to know more about the relationships and how each was affected by the behaviors of the other characters.  The strengths of the book was clearly the character development and the psychological changes as the years progressed.  The characters are real and do represent what was happening for young women, at least from my own insight to my sisters growing up at the same time, making me even more intrigued.  Still not happy with the fire at the end, ok I won’t give away that one of the characters dies…    

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Awaken the Giant Within

A different type of inspiration for today’s RA Favorite Book, motivation to how you live your life!  Yes, self-help time.  The quintessential motivational speaker provides his life lessons on “being who you can become” in life in Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins.  This 1991 published book provides lessons that are embedded in all I learned through the NYU Life Coaching program I took in 2005.  Robbins is the life coach for the stars and every CEO who has made millions, or at least he says he has.  The book is broken into four parts: unleash your power; taking control-the master system; the seven days to shape your life; and a lesson in destiny.  Robbins stories are grounded in well-known people (celebrities, athletes, politicians, military heroes, and yes, the common person who has overcome great adversity).  His own story of growing up poor, working hard with no direction, is the perfect foundation for others to view themselves through.  He has compelling arguments and his suggestions make… perfect sense.  I did get a little worried when he said he actually counsels people (he has no formal training).  Other criticisms include: his use of some border-line sexist language and examples (hey its 19991, does that make it ok?).  I also am not sure how much he notes that changing thinking, I mean REALLY changing your thinking is really hard work.  I think he presents plans and gives the impression that it is easy… how come the 1% has the vast majority of power/money/wealth in society today.   He provides the seven areas to focus on change: Emotions, Physical well-being, Relationships; Financial; Conduct of Self; Use of Time; and Relaxation.  The book serves as a workbook, where you capture your thoughts, goals, aspirations, emotions, etc. (serving as a journal of sorts).  The most compelling area of Robbin’s work is his suggestion for mastery in the area of emotions.  Here are his steps:  1.) Identify what you’re really feeling 2.) Acknowledge and appreciate your emotions, knowing they support you 3.) Get curious about the message this emotion is offering you 4.) Get confident 5.) Get certain you can handle this not only today, but in the future as well 6.) Get excited, and take action.  All of this is great, smart and worthwhile advice.  My favorite Robbins acronym: CANI – Constant and Never-ending Improvement.  Shouldn’t we all be looking to have that happen in our lives?  Overall, a long read, but flows as you think through who you want to be, connecting your values to your actions, documenting as you go along.  Why shouldn’t we want to reflect on being better, having better relationships, seek to understand others, take care of your health, be there for others, and connect to a spiritual side of life.  All so important.  I think everyone should read a book like this, but I would suggest timing is important, i.e. are you ready to put in the work to get to where one could be a better person?  Pick it up!