Category: Books

The joy of Readmill

The last 60 or so books I’ve bought, I’ve bought them via Kindle for iPad. Erin recently introduced me to Readmill, which offers a reading app and a way to share highlighted passages online. People can follow one another, see what they’re reading, see which parts of a book someone found most interesting, puzzling, moving, or troubling by their highlights and comments on the text. Readmill posts your highlights and notes to your profile if you choose.

Readmill continues to improve with each iteration. The last update included an in-app dictionary, something that I find indispensable. Readmill doesn’t yet have the ability to re-read a book. You can re-read it, but the book is considered “finished.” I find re-reading far more pleasurable than the first read. On Erin’s recommendation I read The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Fantastic stuff! Read it twice. Am now reading Grossman’s sequel, The Magician King.

Some of my favorite random passages from The Magicians:

Use magic in anger, and you will harm yourself much more quickly than you will harm your adversary. There are certain spells . . . if you lose control of them, they will change you. Consume you. Transform you into something not human, a niffin, a spirit of raw, uncontrolled magical energy.

Alice was still watching him. Behind her the mosaic was a swirl of green tentacles and whitecaps and floating fragments. He slid down the stone bench to her end and kissed her and bit her lower lip until she gasped.

He felt his intoxication already turning into a hangover, that queasy neurological alchemy that usually happens during sleep. His abdomen was overfull, swollen with tainted viscera. People he’d betrayed came wandering out from the place in his mind where they usually stayed.

Space was full of angry little particles.

So instead he kept his little particle of shame and filth inside, where it could fester and turn septic.

Most people are blind to magic. They move through a blank and empty world. They’re bored with their lives, and there’s nothing they can do about it. They’re eaten alive by longing, and they’re dead before they die.

Learn more about Readmill.

Managing the Apollo program: the Thursday Update Notebook

Another compelling anecdote from James R. Chiles’ Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology, this time about how Joe Shea, NASA’s Apollo program manager, managed his program. By 1964, NASA and its contractors had 300,000 people working on the project:

Shea’s main management tool wasn’t that complicated, either, just a looseleaf notebook that his staff filled each Thursday with progress reports, crisis bulletins, and cost figures sent in from every branch of the Apollo program. Shea marked up the pages working through the weekends, then releasing his incisive comments on the following Monday to be answered in time for the next notebook.

Rosanne Cash on Work Ethic

Steven Pressfield ran an excerpt from Rosanne Cash‘s compelling new memoir, Composed.

In it, Cash describes a dream, in which Linda Ronstadt and a man named “Art” are sitting on a couch deep in discussion. When Cash tries to join the conversation, Art dismisses her, saying, “We don’t respect dilletantes.” The dream had a profound effect on Cash: It inspired a new work ethic for singing, songwriting, and, exploring, and performing:

The strong desire to become a better songwriter dovetailed perfectly with my budding friendship with John Stewart, who had written “Runaway Train” for King’s Record Shop. John encouraged me to expand the subject matter in my songs, as well as my choice of language and my mind. I played new songs for him and if he thought it was too “perfect,” which was anathema to him, he would say, over and over, “but where’s the MADNESS, Rose?” I started looking for the madness. I sought out Marge Rivingston in New York to work on my voice and I started training, as if I were a runner, in both technique and stamina. Oddly, it turned out that Marge also worked with Linda, which I didn’t know when I sought her out. I started paying attention to everything, both in the studio and out. If I found myself drifting off into daydreams–an old, entrenched habit–I pulled myself awake and back into the present moment. Instead of toying with ideas, I examined them, and I tested the authenticity of my instincts musically. I stretched my attention span consciously. I read books on writing by Natalie Goldberg and Carolyn Heilbrun and began to self-edit and refine more, and went deeper into every process involved with writing and musicianship. I realized I had earlier been working only within my known range–never pushing far outside the comfort zone to take any real risks … I started painting, so I could learn about the absence of words and sound, and why I needed them

Further reading on Rosanne Cash and writing: Original Details and the Truth of Experience.

Crush it! By Gary Vaynerchuk

Gary Vaynerchuk has a simple online success formula: take your hobby, (sewing, baseball cards, books, gardening, etc.), create a website, use old-fashioned “hustle” to sow the internet with as many links back to your website as possible and then “monetize” the heck out of every online interaction, and/or wait for a business development person to see your potential and invest in you.

This book is filled with vague platitudes and creepy huckster-speak:

  • It’s a whole new world; build your personal brand and get ready for it.
  • I did it with good, old-fashioned hustle–every customer who walked in got monetized to the fullest.
  • At a certain point, your business will start gaining eyeballs.
  • Today, everybody else can make $40,000 to a million so long as they can nail the correct combination of their medium and passion.
  • When you’re ready, though, the opportunities to monetize your personal brand will blow your mind.

Whatever happened to doing something for its own sake? For the satisfaction that comes with making something? Success is, indeed what you make it. I guess my definition of success doesn't include monetizing the heck out of every online interaction I have with others.

Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman

Book Cover--Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison by Piper Kerman
Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison by Piper Kerman

In 1993, drug-money mule Piper Kerman smuggled $10,000 from Chicago to Brussels for a West African drug lord. Years later, when the drug smuggling ring went down, the judge gave Piper 15 months in prison for her part in the crime.

Kerman does her time at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut, a minimum security camp for low-risk offenders.

A college graduate, Kerman has far greater self-awareness and is far better educated than most of her fellow inmates. All the names in the book, save two, were changed to protect the women at Danbury. Most “campers” were serving time for non-violent drug crimes, things like allowing their phone or apartment to be used for drug trafficking.

So-called dregs of society

The great irony is that the derision, apathy, disrespect, and humiliation Kerman suffers is by so-called law-abiding jail employees. Compare that to empathy and kindness from her fellow inmates–the oft-abused dregs of society who greeted her with small gifts and reassuring words on her first day.

This memoir of course, is a variation on the old fish-out-of-water story. Kerman encounters women of every “tribe” other than her own: Poor, uneducated Blacks, Latinas, and Whites, who despite their disparate backgrounds, demonstrate humanity and compassion. As such, the title Orange is the New Black rings false, disservicing these women and reducing their collective stories to a tired cliché.

Kerman has a loving, stable family, a good job, and a nice house to return to, unlike her fellow inmates. To paraphrase prison pedicurist Rose, these women have “a lot to give”– potential that remains undeveloped in prison. This egregious waste of human potential is the greatest crime the book depicts: The apathetic prison system leaves the inmates ill-prepared to re-enter society, save for a few who gain skills marketable to the outside world. Most Danbury campers have little to go home to:

Pom-Pom, whose mother had preceded her at Danbury, had been worried about what would happen when she was released. She had relatives who grudgingly agreed to let her live with them, though she considered going straight to a homeless shelter. Now she was back on the outside and she had received a chilly reception. The apartment where she was living was in a neighborhood where gunfire was audible every day…the cupboards had been completely bare and she had taken the little money she had to stock the house with food, shampoo, and toilet paper. She was sleeping on the floor.

This small update on Pom-Pom is all the reader learns about Kerman’s tribe post release. Kerman walks out of jail and resumes her life of privilege. What happened to Yoga Janet, Sister Ardeth Platte, Pop, Nina, Annette, Little Janet, Natalie, and Jae? The second greatest crime in the book as that as a reader, you never find out.

See a Penny, Pick it Up

As a child, I remember feeling joy at discovering a penny on the street. Today, if I even notice a penny, I step right over it. I never bother to stop. Do you?

How many other small treasures do I miss, or worse, dismiss during my day as unworthy of my time and, more importantly, my attention?

American author Annie Dillard says pennies (instances of beauty and joy) are all around us and we’re missing out if we don’t take time to fully experience them.

In Seeing, the second chapter of A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard urges us to rediscover joy by paying attention, and to:

“Cultivate a healthy poverty of simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted with pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.”

In fact, Dillard says paying attention is our obligation:

Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will sense them. The least we can do is be there.

I know what I’m going to do, the next time I find a penny.

The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr

Book cover-The Liars' Club by Mary Karr
The Liars' Club by Mary Karr
The Liars’ Club, by Mary Karr, isn’t so much a memoir as a story of survival. Karr recalls her rags-to-riches-to-rags upbringing in Leechfield, Texas (and later Colorado) in the early 60s–a place where “a slow race” was the definitive competition among the kids–where you pedaled just slow enough on your two-wheel bike to be in last place, without tipping over.

Next to her sister Lecia (pronounced “Lisa”), Karr’s father Pete, a hard-drinking oil refinery worker who spent his life punching the clock and paying his union dues, was the most stable influence in her life. Her alcoholic, pill-popping mother, Charlie Marie, was given to dramatic outbursts. She ignored her kids and longed for the glamour of New York in the 40s.

Karr’s recall is vivid and detailed–so consistently detailed, that as a reader I sometimes questioned where the memoirist left off and the storyteller began. For a person who experienced several traumatic events–rape at age seven, sexual assault later on, and her mother’s violent mental breakdown–you’d think you’d want to forget as much of your childhood as possible. But The Liars’ Club is, as Karr notes, about healing “…through exposure.” Through writing the book, Karr found that her family’s “…distant catastrophes became somehow manageable. Catharsis, the Greeks call it.”

The book takes its name from Pete Karr’s group of buddies who met to drink and shoot shit. The card-table lies he told were the most benign in the book–exaggerations and half-truths about his upbringing and experiences. Charlie Marie Karr’s lies were altogether different, the kind of lying American poet Adrienne Rich said is done “with silence.” The silence Charlie Marie kept after her first husband left one day with their two young kids nearly destroyed her, until she too, found her distant catastrophes somehow manageable by exposing them to Karr during a Marguerita-soaked mother-daughter evening.

This book is worth your time.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Book cover, "Zeitoun" by Dave Eggers
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Imagine: A category five hurricane strikes. You chose not to evacuate to protect your property, and to help others who stayed behind. While checking on one of your properties, heavily armed officers arrest you and three friends at gunpoint. They refuse to elucidate your charges, strip search you, and throw you in a torturous outdoor holding cell unfit for animals. You watch your captors as they torture fellow prisoners with pepper spray and beanbag guns for seemingly minor infractions. They deny your right to a phone call, medical treatment, and legal representation–violating your basic human rights. Your dignity evaporates along with your hope for release.

That’s what happened to Abdulrahman Zeitoun (pronounced “Zay-toon”), a Syrian American Muslim man, after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005. In all, Zeitoun spent 23 days in jail. During his incarceration, he was never formally charged with a crime or allowed to make a phone call.

While Zeitoun, a painting contractor, eventually restored the family home (it was flooded by Lake Pontchartrain when the levees broke after the storm), peace of mind, safety, and faith in the American government that was supposed to protect him, remain elusive.

Eggers reports the story through the family’s eyes, based on their memories of the events and copious research. Where possible, news and government reports confirm dates and events. However, there is very little balance within the book—only two police officers’ limited accounts appear. Interviews with FEMA, police leadership, and government officials are absent. There is no question that what happened to the Zeitouns was nightmarish and horrendous. Unfortunately, the American government remains unaccountable for their failures post Katrina. But then again, with such egregious neglect for the health and well being of its citizens, could any explanation possibly suffice?

All proceeds from book sales go directly to the Zeitoun Foundation, to help rebuild New Orleans and promote human rights for all Americans.

Read what Wikipedia has to say about the book.