Monthly Archives: October 2012

Scone Island – Frederick Ramsay The Happiness Advantage – Shawn Achor

Still reading and even more all over the map than during the challenge. In some ways I miss the discipline of one book and one blog post per day. But I would have to be an heiress to keep that up so it is something of a relief to let go of the deadlines. Oddly, though, I detest the daily grind of imposed work-for-hire that eats hours of time in research and writing to formula and for a pittance. It was slightly easier to face that when I wrote something just because I wanted to every day. That development could use more thought.

Scone Island was a pretty good adventure–political thriller, if you can imagine such a thing set on a sparsely inhabited tiny island off the coast of Maine with no electricity or phone service but plenty of spooks and bad guys out to get them. Frederick Ramsay writes convincingly about CIA operations and various National Security Agency type scenarios. His bio doesn’t list any insider experience though so I wondered for the whole book how much of it I could trust and how much wouldn’t pass scrutiny by a true intelligence agent.

The hero of the story is Ike Schwartz, a small-town sheriff now and a former undercover operative who is suddenly a target in a deadly web of assassinations. His serious heartthrob, Dr. Ruth Dennis, the president of a university, is recovering from a health trauma involving a broken leg as well as a brutal year managing a faculty mutiny and the two run away to Scone Island for some R&R. Ruth has inherited a cottage from her aunt and Ike slips a generator and a real coffee pot into their gear, not being much of a fan of roughing it. They arrive on Scone Island to hear about a fatal fall from a cliff that will affect, almost immediately, their own safety.

Lots happens. Some of it is very far out there. Good amount of tension and the requisite international issue at stake. Ruth’s mother Eden is a pistol. I liked it enough to read another one–it’s part of a series–but the location really did have its limits and the constant verbal sparring between Ruth and Ike was exhausting after a while.

The Happiness Advantage is Shawn Achor’s bible of how–and why–to be happy. It’s a positive psychology book that cites an impressive number of studies showing the effect optimism and a feeling of well-being can have on your health, career, productivity, longevity and other significant bits of your life. I really really liked the first half of the book in which Achor talks about the cult of the average, positive outliers, the power of your mindset, the tetris effect (getting stuck in a mind-loop), and, in general, how happiness precedes success and not the other way around. Lots of very good science in language a lay person can easily absorb. (Achor, like the Harvard grad student he was, footnotes his references copiously at the end of the book.)

The second half seemed to stretch on–and on. Achor is a corporate trainer and I think he just turned the advice too much into career and company success tips for me. I preferred the personal information and I’ve read (or been subjected to) most of the corporate remedy stuff before. Heavy social networking is one of Achor’s rules for achievement, for instance,  and that seemed tiresome, even though I know connection and community are mental health pluses. But Achor does have a fair amount to say about how your mind and attitude directly impact the minutest details of your existence so The Happiness Advantage holds up.  Stick with the early chapters unless you are a corporate manager trying to jazz your team out of a slump.

 The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work   Shawn Achor | Crown Business   2010

 Scone Island: An Ike Schwartz Mystery   Frederick Ramsay| Poisoned Pen Press  2012

365+ Books & a Few Good Stories

“Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly.”

― Cornelia FunkeInkheart

I read every day for a year. I have been a voracious reader all my life but events eroded my time and my enthusiasm and I read very little for a number of years, until last October. In the middle of a collapsing life in a collapsing civilization, with panic keeping me up all night, I began staying up half the night to read and blog about books. Some of those books were sheer crap. Some were really really pedestrian. Quite a few left me wondering how they ever got published. A far smaller number stunned me with their inventiveness, imagination, eloquence and brilliance. I met memorable characters. I waded through mudflats of stereotypes, caricatures, and just plain stupid attempts to put people on the page–lots of fails. Reading so much made me hungry for really good books.

Discovered anew there are no new stories. I can predict plots fairly well–comes of having been a bookish child–and I honed that skill appreciably by reading every day. The daily word count forced me to finish a lot of books I would have abandoned and sadly set aside big fat tomes I would have worked through for as long as it took. I’m happy to have freedom of choice back. But I’m interested to note that I’m a lot calmer about the wreckage of the world I knew than I was last year. There are other worlds, just next to this one. We can choose to inhabit them if they appeal to us more. It is necessary to acknowledge that, though, and most people would think it madness. Read enough books and madness comes to resemble sanity.

I will keep reading but I’m shifting the lion’s share of my time, outside of the typing-for-pennies work, to my own writing. I have no illusions about what it takes to make up stories but I’m well aware now that the time is a luxury. Aware as well that time is the one irreplaceable currency. There are many ways to access better worlds than this limited and shabby one–music, theatre, art, sailing, contemplation, reading books, writing them.  A book is a passage to somewhere else it might be worth exploring. Capturing stories in words is a bridge to a world you create–and who can say it is any less real than the dreams and nightmares we trudge through now?

“Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”
― Voltaire

Once upon a time, I thought the challenge of reading a-book-a-day would save me. Instead it reminded me that I am perfectly capable of saving myself. And I have stacks of unread volumes piled all over the house for the hours every day when I will gratefully open the covers and step inside a story. Humans are narratives. That’s not a metaphor. We are just a bunch of swirling molecules we perceive in the shape of a story. Every single person–told or unrecounted–is a story.  That’s enough reason for hope.

“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.” 
― Miguel de Cervantes SaavedraDon Quixote

The end.

An Acceptable Time – Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine L’Engle is a great storyteller so I saved her book, An Acceptable Time, for last. It’s a different kind of wrinkle in time. Polly has moved in with her grandparents, both distinguished scientists, who live in an old farmhouse in New England on land that has been inhabited for thousands of years. It’s a very different world from the Carolina coastal island where her marine biologist parents live with the rest of their large brood. Polly is meant to study sciences and prepare herself for college but empirical science intervenes. She encounters a strange man and a dog in the woods and then an acquaintance from her summer job in Greece. Later she sees a frantic young girl with a long dark braid in her grandparents’ pool house.

When a neighbor, a retired Protestant bishop, brings Ogam stones, with their ancient carved alphabet, to her grandparents’ house, Polly’s story catches his attention. Because he has seen the same people–and traveled back in time just as Polly accidentally has, and suspects there is a tesseract, a fold of time that opens worlds, and that the whole thing has something to do with Druids. It’s very interesting if you like all things Druid. L’Engle circles and circles back to build her case for this opening in time. The charming but completely self-absorbed summer acquaintance inserts himself into Polly’s life.  The scientists are skeptical but they can’t discount independent testimony entirely. Samhain, the Druid holy time when the veil between worlds is thin, is approaching and every attempt to protect Polly from some danger in the time slip, including sending her off on a date with the summer boy, fails.

As Polly becomes enmeshed in a three-thousand-year-old society on the land where the farm now sits, her life is threatened in horrible ways and her trust in people is severely tested. There are brave hearts and blackguards in this tale and Polly will deal with each as she tries to mend hostilities, fractured psyches and an environmental catastrophe that could mark her as a blood sacrifice. The story never condescends to the ancient people in the time travel and, in the end, Polly is no Pollyanna, although I was exasperated by her even-tempered treatment of idiots from time to time. But the science is fun and the adventure is lively and the worlds L’Engle builds are convincing ones.  An Acceptable Time was a good choice for a last book. And now to bed. No more late late late nights finishing the story of the day. Or not too many anyway.

An Acceptable Time (Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet)   Madeleine L’Engle | Farrar, Straus and Giroux   1989

Glamour in Glass – Mary Robinette Kowal

Napoleon has abdicated and the Continent is at last safe for Jane and Vincent to chance a honeymoon in Belgium. The two are glamourists, magical illusionists who can create living scenes at will and cause people to disappear in a bubble of invisibility. The French-Belgian world is more open and more intrigue-filled than anything Jane is accustomed to but she quickly resuscitates her shabby French and tries to understand why her husband seems to be hiding something from her. Glamour in Glass is a fantasy set in the language and era of Jane Austen by Mary Robinette Kowal, who goes to some lengths to excise most words that wouldn’t have existed in Austen’s day.

Newlywed Jane is not as accomplished as David but she is the one who comes up with the idea to trap a glamour in glass, inventing a bauble which does magic, although the beta model only works in direct sunlight. It also takes so much energy from her that she falls ill and is nauseous and exhausted for days. Meanwhile Vincent rides out to meet with clients daily without Jane and she is frantic to know what is going on.  As the reason for her illness becomes clear, she makes a shocking discovery about the man she married and the dangerous secret he has kept from her.

And then Napoleon escapes captivity and marches back to Paris and Brits Jane and Vincent are trapped in political intrigue and betrayal, a torturous captivity and a life-threatening bid for escape.  The whole glamour thing is so unusual that it takes some energy on the part of the reader to maintain the illusion. But Glamour in Glass is worth the work. It’s a terrific story with a few surprising twists and turns, characters who behave uncharacteristically to add surprises to the plot and reasonably accurate enough history to be convincing. Good book. Odd but good  idea. Kowal published a well-received prequel to this adventure and it’s probably worth hunting for so I’ll put it on my non-urgent library list for the day when I have the time to read purely for pleasure and escape again.

Glamour in Glass   Mary Robinette Kowal | Tor Books   2012

Scandal on Rincon Hill – Shirley Tallman

Scandal on Rincon Hill is a period murder mystery but I wouldn’t call it a legal thriller as one book review did. Shirley Tallman creates a heroine who is an anomaly in nineteenth century San Francisco, a young woman fervently dedicated to her profession as an attorney with the support of her family, more or less. The “less” is her mother’s heartfelt desire to see her married and settled. But Sarah Woolson has determined that, as married women are the property of their husbands (legally, really!) and not free to develop their own careers, marriage is a state she can never afford. Nonetheless, she is ardently pursued by two very attractive and persistent polar opposites throughout her adventures.

Sarah seems to be operating a one-woman legal services clinic–her clients are prostitutes and indigent Chinese laborers, fresh off the boat. She moves without too much propriety through the seedier back alleys of San Francisco, popping in and out of upscale bawdy houses, disreputable newspaper offices and murder scenes at will. When a scientist is brutally murdered just blocks from her home in a “good” neighborhood, the tabloids go berserk. Then another, similar murder happens and the police are hellbent to pin the crimes on someone and stop the public panic. The two murders appear to be related, although no one can connect them to a killer. And then two young Chinese immigrants are arrested and framed for the crime.

Meanwhile Sarah gets involved with a beautiful “kept” woman who has been dumped on the street by her prominent married lover, despite a signed contract that he will support her. She and her cherubic infant take up residence in the city’s fanciest bordello and she approaches Sarah to represent her in a suit against the ex-lover. The boss of the Chinese tong, well-known to Sarah, takes an interest in the fate of the Chinese suspects who seem destined for a lynch mob. Sarah is spotted going into the bordello by an unscrupulous reporter who writes about her indiscretion in a lurid tabloid. A slick, besotted shipping magnate, a hunk naturally, returns from Hong Kong to pursue Sarah. Her former colleague–less smooth, equally besotted–lurks around, scowling. Her beloved brother is still pretending to be a law clerk but really establishing a major reputation as a fearless crime reporter, unbeknownst to their father, the judge. It’s complicated. And the murders aren’t over yet.

Pretty good light reading–some nice historical detail and some conversational ticks that seem a bit mannered. Sarah is extremely aware of acceptable convention and rather pushy and that isn’t always believable in her corseted society.  The characters aren’t too deeply imagined but the stereotypes hold up if you don’t expect too much. The resolution is sudden and neater than I could cheer about–can’t really see it coming, even after it happens. But decent escapist mystery, no real thrills, characters to follow but not really root for. Pure genre, not high art but not bad.

Scandal on Rincon Hill: A Sarah Woolson Mystery (Sarah Woolson Mysteries)   Shirley Tallman | St. Martin’s Press   2010

The Journey of English – Donna Brook

Donna Brook’s The Journey of English states that the English language contains over a billion words, more than any other language, although we commonly use only about 200,000 of them. Judging from most conversations I hear, we use far fewer than that and I couldn’t begin to quantify how many of those 200,000 I may have encountered this year. Etymology is endlessly fascinating to me and this simple book is a good introduction to the evolution of English from the steppes of Siberia to the fast-food outlets in Guatemala City. It’s interesting to note that English is only about 5,000 years old–and most of that time the language existed in forms unrecognizable to us today. Chinese is approximately 5,000 years old as well but China’s isolation allowed Mandarin to develop in a much more homogenous way.

English is a ragtag vagabond, lurching from central Europe to the British Isles and picking up Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and French coloring through wars and migrations, raids and intermarrying, from Celtic stronghold to Roman Empire to Saxon and Angle conquests. Tracking the words and how they appeared where they did is better brain candy than a crossword puzzle. Old English gave us the days of the week and the words eat and sleep, as well as the great legends that are the basis for many of our defining stories. The imposition of Latinate Christianity gave us angel, purple, silk and school. The Normans handed off French influence in the guise of parliament, liberty, crown, treaty and tax. The Renaissance with its recovered classics infused English with more Latin and some Greek–most English reflects those two languages although the words we use for the lion’s share of our communication, the plainspoken short serviceable words, are from the Old English.

It’s possible to get lost in the origins of English, in the sources for scientific terms and the flourishes of the preserved manuscripts hand-copied by monks and the impressive vocabulary of one William Shakespeare–30,000 words–and the King James Bible. Between the British Empire and the rampant spread of American consumer culture and the web–English can be found everywhere. It travels well and leaves traces behind wherever it goes. We’ve planted a bit of English on the moon. Maybe intelligent beings picking up transmissions from earth in some distant galaxy already speak passable English–there’s a scary thought. But, although I wish I spoke other languages far better than I do, I’m glad I have English to write in and to read aloud. Whether you’re cussing or declaiming poetry, English is a very satisfying language to speak and hear–and read, of course. Just lose yourself in Dylan Thomas or shout out a little Mos Def, grab some Jane Austen. Toni Morrison or Bob Stone. It’s all good. Good–from Old English: “virtuous; desirable; valid; considerable; having the right or desirable quality…”

The Journey of English   Donna Brook | Clarion Books   1998

The Great Work of Your Life – Stephen Cope

Stephen Cope, director of Kripalu Institute for extraordinary Living, undertakes the challenge of relating the teachings in the Bhagavad Gita to the tricky prospect of discovering–and embracing–your true dharma. The Great Work of Your Life is the result. It’s a very easy read, but a reflective one. Cope tells the tale of Arjuna the warrior at the moment of battle, collapsing to the floor of his chariot in despair. In front of him are lined up neighbors and kinsmen who will die at his hand or kill him. Yet it is his destiny as a great warrior to proceed. He is paralyzed and he begs his old friend and charioteer for advice. What he gets is full-bore Krishna (the charioteer) and a relentless instruction about surrender, action and detachment that Arjuna can’t quite grasp for a while.

Cope relates the Gita to the lives of celebrated and ordinary figures: Gandhi, Beethoven, Camille Corot, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, a priest caught in a mid-life identity crisis, a Jungian therapist facing her own mortality, a college friend who believed he was the reincarnation of John Keats, the poet Keats himself.  The stories illustrate the ways in which people encounter their dharma, deny it, accept it, live it. Jane Goodall was drawn to animals from the time she was a young child and had the good fortune to have a sympathetic and supportive mother. Thoreau tried his luck as a writer in greedy Gotham, was chewed up and spit out and repaired to light isolation at Walden Pond (his mother brought him sandwiches and cookies–not the wilds of Borneo) to figure out who he was and what he should do about that. Walt Whitman wrote and rewrote his genius work Leaves of Grass but was entering a period of serious aridity when the Civil War broke out and he found himself all over again caring for wounded soldiers. Robert Frost turned his back on the literary world and bought a farm so he could write poems after he repaired a few fences and gathered the apples.

They are wonderful teaching tales and Cope skillfully draws the heart of the message from each life. The task of discovering your dharma and turning it into the hours and days of your life is similar to Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, from the invitation to enter the unknown, through initial hesitations, eventual trust, the loss of all familiar, fear, epiphany, the forging of a new identity, a re-entry to the known world and the integration of this richer new self and all it implies. Embrace your dharma, Cope asserts, and things unfold without much prodding. You can’t evade loss and pain but you encounter ecstasy and calm assurance. It sounds like mindfulness to the nth degree–you live in the now, fulfilled and contented and very present, fully alive, even when facing death.

I liked the book a lot. I’m going to haul out my Mahabharata and re-read the Bhagavad Gita as soon as I have time to think about it and take it slow. Some things really can’t be rushed (another teaching in The Great Work...). This book didn’t fall into my lap–I was looking for it when I found it. But it arrived at a convenient moment, as I sunset a business and way of working that’s no longer working for me and attempt to create something new and exhilarating in the ruins. If I don’t have to return The Great Work of Your Life to the library before next week, I might just read it again.

The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling   Stephen Cope | Bantam Books  2012