Midweek @ Musings: A Review of my “Required Reading”

Recently I described an unexpected work assignment:

one day last week I returned to my office to find a book on my desk with a note from my boss’ assistant.  The note read, “Stopped by.  Mr. Boss wants you to read this book and give it to Joe Colleague when you are done.”

And then I rambled on a bit about required reading.  As promised, I’m here today to tell you more about the book.  But first, some background.  I work as an IT director for a large multinational company.  Part of my job involves IT innovation — looking for emerging technology with potentially interesting application in our business.  We’ve been discussing how to improve our idea generation process by tapping the ideas of hundreds of people around the world.  When my boss asked us to read this book, he wanted to get us thinking, and give us a common language and examples to use in our team discussions.  In that respect I think the exercise was successful, even if the book did have some significant weaknesses.  Read on for my review …

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The Smart Swarm, by Peter Miller, describes phenomena from the natural world, and applies them to human communications and decision-making.  What can we learn from colonies of ants, bees, or termites?  Or flocks of birds?  Ants are good at self-organization, creating order from chaos.  Bees make use of the “wisdom of crowds” to find appropriate sites for their nests.  If you have ever relied on consumer reviews to help you select a book, movie, or hotel, you have participated in the human equivalent of these processes.

The book is very accessible and easy to read.  Miller adopts a format common to this type of business book: each chapter illustrates an element of his thesis, and is peppered with real-life examples from business or government.  As an editor for National Geographic, Miller is good at describing scientific concepts in layman’s terms.  Some of his examples are more effective than others; a long segment on the Orcs in The Lord of the Rings films was neither about the natural world, nor humans.  He also includes a chapter on locusts to describe the “dark side” of crowd behavior.  Locusts have always been one of my least favorite bugs, and this book did nothing to improve their status.

While The Smart Swarm succeeds in showing parallels between the natural world and humans, it falls short of helping organizations adopt these principles.  It is only in the last 10 pages that Miller sums up the lessons we should have learned in previous chapters (“From honeybee swarms we’ve learned that groups can reliably make good decisions in a timely fashion as long as they seek a diversity of knowledge and perspectives …”).  But  he fails to translate this into specific actions business leaders can take to change the way their organizations run.  This would have been a better book if it had taken that next step.

Midweek @ Musings: A Truth Universally Acknowledged (an essay collection)

Last weekend, my reading plans were thwarted by a less-than-stellar book, and my thoughts turned to finishing something that had sat on the table, partly read, for a few months.  The book was A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why we Read Jane Austen, edited by Susannah Carson.  I first heard of this book from Rachel at Booksnob (her excellent review is here).  I’m very pleased to have this book in my library, because it goes so well with any Austen novel (sort of like coffee and chocolate, mmmm ….)

So today, by way of a review, I’ll share more of this book with you …

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As the title implies, this book is a collection of essays about Jane Austen’s work, written by notable writers from Virginia Woolf to Lionel Trilling to Amy Bloom.   Their tone ranges from academic to casual.  Each essay conveys a deep and abiding respect, even love, for Jane Austen.  The essays were not written specifically for this book; rather, they were written for a specific purpose in the writer’s career.  Because of this, there are some repetitive themes and elements.  Several writers summarized Austen’s upbringing, her family, and her all-too-short life.  More than one expressed surprise that Austen’s work never mentioned significant current events like the Napoleonic wars.  Other essayists defended her in this regard.  It was interesting, and sometimes humorous, to see how each author approached their task. One essay began with the phrase, “A truth universally acknowledged,” while another decried this cliché.

Some of the essays discussed Austen’s entire body of work, while others focused on specific novels.  I began reading this book concurrent with a re-read of Pride and Prejudice, and found those specific essays enhanced my reading experience.  Over the next several weeks I read an essay here and there, and then sat down to finish the book over a long weekend.  I do not recommend the latter approach.  The essays are so different from one to the next, that sequential reading is difficult to digest.  The book did, however, reinforce my intent to re-read Austen’s novels.  The collection is best as a companion read, and I will take it off the shelf each time I read one of Austen’s books.

I’ll close with a paragraph from Janet Todd’s essay, “Why I Like Jane Austen,” which described better than any other my own reasons for enjoying the divine Jane:

Jane Austen seems to the writer nearest to a composer of classical music, her novels well-wrought symphonies; turbulent depths coexist with ordered surfaces and the ration of the expected to the unexpected feels just as it should. Each time I read her — and she is one of the few novelists who can be read and reread — I know I have not exhausted the books; something has again escaped me, as it does from a concert performance of a complex musical piece.  It was beautiful, but did I listen as closely as I should? Like Lyme in Persuasion, Jane Austen’s books “must be visited, and visited again.”

The Sunday Salon Review: Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

Today’s post is coming a bit late in the day, for three reasons.  First, I intended to write a book review, but needed to finish the book first!  I read the last 15 pages or so early this morning.  Second, we had a few things to do in the morning and early afternoon.  And finally, on returning home we found the power was out!  I’m writing this post from a Starbucks, enjoying free wifi and a latte.

This week I finished my chunkster-thon with Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, and I’ve now moved on to two short-ish Virago Modern Classics:  Palladian, by Elizabeth Taylor; and Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, by Barbara Comyns.  Taylor is one of my favorite authors, and Comyns is an author I’ve been wanting to read for some time.  Plus I have 5 of her books in my Virago bookcase, so I’d better get on with it.

But first, I need to write that book review …

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In the late  1930s, Louie Zamperini was a young hell-raiser growing up in Torrance, California.  He was also an aspiring Olympic runner, breaking records in nearly every race as he closed in on a 4-minute mile.  But in 1941, like so many young American men, he joined the military to serve in World War II.  As a member of the Army Air Corps, he was on board a bomber that crashed in the Pacific Ocean in May 1943.  Louie and two crewmen survived.  Unbroken is an amazing account of Louie’s survival, both from the crash and over two years’ imprisonment in a Japanese POW camp, and of his struggle to regain his dignity and re-enter “normal” American society.

Unbroken is a very personal story; since Zamperini is still alive, Laura Hillenbrand had direct access to him and to his scrapbooks and other memorabilia.  Through Louie she learned a great deal about his beloved crew members and soldiers he met in the camps.  She also learned about the man Zamperini came to fear most:  a Japanese guard nicknamed “The Bird,” whose brutality landed him 7th on the list of war criminals sought for trial after the war.  The result is an emotional page-turner that sometimes made me smile, more often made my stomach churn, and occasionally brought tears to my eyes.

So why did I rate it only 3.5 stars?  There was a tinge of American exceptionalism running through this book that bothered me.  Early on, Hillenbrand described the Nanking Massacre, which laid groundwork for an “Americans are good, Japanese are bad” theme.  Other more subtle cues appeared elsewhere in the text, as when one of Louie’s crewmates describes a failed Japanese bombing as “inept.”  The last straw for me was near the end of the book after the Japanese surrender, as Hillenbrand summed up the war.  Of Japan’s role in the conflict she wrote, “In its rampage over the east, Japan had brought atrocity and death on a scale that staggers the imagination.”  She then went on to cite casualty figures that, frankly, were nowhere close to the casualties from the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  And a few pages later, describing those horrific bombings, she quoted a serviceman who felt “the end probably justified the means.”  I’m telling you, it turned my stomach.

And yet, I would still recommend this book as a first-hand account of the realities of war.  Just be forewarned.

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Read more from The Sunday Salon here.

Review: Breaking Night, by Liz Murray

Talk about overcoming obstacles.  Liz Murray has done it.  Born to drug-addicted parents living in the Bronx, Liz was homeless at 15.  By that time she had already experienced life’s hard knocks in ways most of us could never imagine:  waiting up all night for her parents to come home from bars, watching them shoot up in the kitchen, having her belongings sold to buy drugs.  The family’s apartment was in poor condition to begin with, and her parents were unable to keep up with basic maintenance.  The bathtub drain was so backed up, the smell permeated the rest of the apartment.   By the time she turned 10, Liz was skipping school regularly, trying to earn her own money pumping gas or bagging groceries.

Liz’s mother left for another man, and Liz remained with her father.  When conditions forced him to move to a shelter, Liz entered the foster care system, living in a group home for a while.  She was then returned to her mother’s custody, but soon began skipping school again and eventually left home to live on her own.  She stayed the night with friends or slept on the subway.  She became involved in an unhealthy relationship, and stayed in it too long simply for the perceived security.  Shortly after her mother died from AIDS, Liz “hit bottom” and began working to get her own life together, attending an alternative high school and obtaining her degree in just two years.  She also obtained a prestigious New York Times scholarship that enabled her to pursue a university degree.

However, despite a compelling story, the writing was just average, and repetitive in parts.  Sometimes the emotions were raw and hit hard; at other times I failed to connect even when I felt I should.  Because it’s a true story, it was a difficult read.  I know there are thousands like Liz facing similarly extreme hardship, who will never be able to turn their lives around.  While Liz’s perseverance was amazing, what most impressed me was her ability to love, accept, and forgive those who wronged her.  There’s a lesson in that for all of us.

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks died from an aggressive form of cervical cancer.  Before she passed away, doctors obtained cell tissue from her tumor.  These cells became the first human cells grown in culture, and proved to be “immortal”:  growing and dividing, providing essential material for scientific research that has furthered the development of modern medicine, including groundbreaking achievements like the polio vaccine.  There was just one thing: the cells were taken without Henrietta’s knowledge or consent.  By today’s medical ethics and privacy standards, this sounds outrageous.  But at the time, such activity was commonplace.

Author Rebecca Skloot first learned about Henrietta’s cells, known as HeLa, in a high school biology class, and thus began more than a decade of research to learn everything she could about the woman whose cells still exist today in laboratories all around the world.  Skloot explains the process of cell division and cell culture, how the cells were used in research, and some of the accomplishments enabled by HeLa cells. This was all fascinating material in its own right.

But even more interesting is the human story behind the science.  Henrietta was a poor African-American woman who grew up in Virginia and moved to Baltimore when her husband found employment in the steel industry.  She had several children, including a daughter who was institutionalized and died young, several sons, and another daughter, Deborah, who was about 50 when Skloot began working on her book.  Deborah and her brothers had learned about the cells several years earlier, and were outraged.  How could scientists make so much money off their mother’s cells, when Henrietta’s children could not even afford their own healthcare?  And what business did (mostly white) journalists have, poking around in their family’s affairs?

Slowly and with incredible patience, Skloot gained a bit of Deborah’s trust and pieced together Henrietta’s story.  And, it seemed, she also helped the family better understand what happened to their mother, and work through some of their anger and grief.  When Henrietta died, doctors were perceived as infallible, not to be questioned.  And a black patient would never have considered questioning a white doctor, or even seeking clarification.  The family was left to draw their own conclusions.  Their emotions were fueled by a basic lack of knowledge: of the facts behind their mother’s condition and treatment, and of the basic scientific concepts.

There were some incredibly moving moments in this story.  Deborah’s younger brother had led a life of violence and crime, catalyzed by losing his mother at a young age.  But he achieved a degree of inner peace, thanks to the kindness of a young researcher who showed him his mother’s cells for the first time.  And Deborah’s story — wow.  She was a rock, and yet so fragile.  Her pain brought tears to my eyes many times.

This was an absolutely fascinating book, raising challenging and controversial ethical issues while telling a very real story of love and family.

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Review: Flush, by Virginia Woolf

This is not your typical Virginia Woolf.  Written as a light break after finishing The Waves, Flush is a “biography” of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel.  Drawing on Browning’s writing and other details of her life, Woolf imagines the life Browning’s dog must have led.  Being Flush’s life story, it is told entirely from his perspective.  His life began in the country, and he moved to London when Flush went to live with Elizabeth.  He adjusted to the confines of city life, and bonded with his new mistress.  But when Robert Browning began to call on Elizabeth, Flush felt excluded and jealous:

He resolved to meet his enemy face to face and alone. No third person should interrupt this final conflict. It should be fought out by the principals themselves. On the afternoon of Tuesday, the 21st of July, therefore, he slipped downstairs and waited in the hall. He had not long to wait.  Soon he heard the tramp of familiar footstep in the street; he heard the familiar rap on the door.  Mr. Browning was admitted. Vaguely aware of the impending attack and determined to meet it in the most conciliatory of spirits, Mr. Browning had come provided with a parcel of cakes. … Flush sprang upon his enemy with unparalleled violence.  (p. 67)

Flush gradually came to terms with Elizabeth’s relationship, survived the hazards of nineteenth-century London, and accompanied his owners to Italy when they married.  There he discovered new smells, and new types of dogs.  And when a baby arrived, he once again had to adjust to changes in the family.

A book like this is often dreadfully cute and silly.  But Flush is written by a master, who loved dogs and had a brilliant way with words.  The result is a delightful balance between fiction and non-fiction that makes for a delightful read.

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Review: 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff

Well, that was an hour well spent.  I read this short memoir in a single sitting over breakfast, and it was a lovely way to start my day.  This is a well-known book, and I don’t have much to say that hasn’t already been said.  But just in case you are not familiar with 84, Charing Cross Road, it is a collection of letters between an American woman in New York, and an employee of a London antiquarian bookshop.  Helene Hanff sent her first letter to Marks & Co. in October, 1949, politely requesting a few books she had been unable to find in the US.  Marks & Co.’s representative Frank Doel replied with customary courtesy, and thus began 20 years of correspondence.

The letters between Helene and Frank deal mostly with books, but as time passes they share more details about themselves.  Helene is a freelance scriptwriter, struggling to make a living and ever hopeful of traveling to England.  Frank is married with two daughters.  Initially his family must cope with food rationing and the aftermath of World War II.  Grateful for Frank’s ability to find rare books, Helene regularly sends “care packages” to Marks & Co., filled with hard-to-find meat and eggs.  Later on, Frank and his wife buy their first car, and their daughters reach adulthood.

In some ways it’s surprising the correspondence ever moved beyond the transactional.  Helene displays all the usual American stereotypes:  she is forward, informal, and somewhat demanding.  Frank never rises to the bait, always maintaining his professional reserve.  I smiled to myself, imagining the conversations Marks & Co. employees might have had about Helene.  But over time, bonds formed and a genuine friendship developed between Helene & Frank.  I wished so much that the two would have an opportunity to meet face-to-face, but it was not to be.

This is a wonderful book about a relationship formed through a shared love of books.

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