Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Smoke

Finished June 13
Smoke by Dan Vyleta

This novel is set in an alternate England, one in which those with wicked thoughts or engaged in sinful actions emit smoke from their bodies. The less smoke one emits, the better one is, and the upper classes smoke very little. Of course, this lack of smoke isn't all natural, because they can afford substances that control the smoke, and of course control knowledge of these substances to maintain their reputation of superiority.  The time is the early twentieth century, in an England who has closed off many of its contacts with the rest of the world, especially in terms of new technologies and scientific learning.
In this world we are introduced to two boys of about sixteen, at an upper class boarding school. Thomas came to the school recently despite laws making such schooling compulsory, and thus is a bit of an outsider. Charlie is the son of one of the wealthiest families in the country, a gentle boy who is also highly intelligent. As the book opens, the boys have been woken in the night to undergo a peer controlled examination around the emitting of smoke. The exercise is a form of bullying and control. The unexpected result of this nighttime encounter has both Thomas and the upperclassman organizer of the examination forced to undergo private tutoring.
As the book unfolds, the action organizes it into sections. The first section is at the school, the second at the country house of Thomas' uncle, where both Charlie and Thomas learn more about the nature of smoke and the control of it and meet Thomas' cousin Livia. The third section is one that introduces more characters who are at a lower level of the social order, and the three young people discover that wealth and freedom are not always aligned. The fourth and fifth sections are set in London, with more understanding and manipulation of the nature of smoke and its meaning.
The quotes that introduce each section highlight the some of the inspiration for this novel, Dickens' world of complex plots, a London of dirty fog, and harsh realities. Even the cover image used draws from that time period of a dirty, dangerous city.
There is so much in this book to comment on that it is hard to know where to start, especially if one is trying not to give away plot elements. It abounds with secrets, personal ones, family ones, national ones. Secret labs to delve into scientific ideas outlawed by the state. Secret police who operate outside of state control. Secret feelings between people. Complex relationships between a mother and her children, between friends, between men and women. Smoke illustrates the complex worlds of reason and passion, social order, religion versus science, and ethical behaviour. There is also lots of action, from chase scenes and dramatic escapes, to a love triangle, to violent interactions.
An amazing read.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

The Language of Secrets

Finished June 12
The Language of Secrets by Ausma Zehanat Khan

This is the second novel in the series featuring Detective Esa Khattak and his partner Rachel Getty. Here Khattak has been called in by the RCMP's INSET team, the national security team. INSET has been investigating a group they believe to be planning an attack on a number of public targets within the Toronto area, and their inside man has been murdered. Khattak is asked to head the murder investigation in such a way as to not reveal INSET's investigation. The dead man, Mohsin Dar, is an estranged friend of Khattak's, and he is determined to investigate fully while staying within his parameters.
The man he is to report to within INSET, his old team, is a man who resents Khattak's successes, and who makes no secret of his feelings. As Khattak and Getty move forward with the investigation, Getty in an undercover role, they learn that Khattak has been involved in ways they didn't expect. Getty is worried about the civilians that may be hurt if things go badly, and also increasingly aware of the prejudices against Khattak.
As with her first book, The Unquiet Dead, this book explores the diversity of culture within religion, and the ways in which that culture expresses itself, in language such as poetry, and in interpretation of language in ways of peace and of revenge. Khan's experience as a human rights lawyer informs her writing and makes the mystery more complex.
I also enjoy the way personal lives of the characters come into it, with both Getty's and Khattak's families, Getty's love of hockey, and Khattak's of poetry. I look forward to more books in this series.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Bagdad Without a Map

Finished June 6
Baghdad Without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia by Tony Horwitz

This memoir covers a his adventures in the late '80s in which Tony and his wife, writer and journalist Geraldine Brooks, were based in Egypt. She had just been offered the Middle East posting by her newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, and he decided that working freelance from Cairo was the best opportunity at that time. As he follows stories to a number of countries in the Arab world, he shows us the culture, the bureaucracy, the economic conditions of these countries. The people are both yearning for a different life idolizing western civilization, and dismissive of it. Getting things done takes time, money and endless patience. There are rule followers and rule ignorers, and he finds his way to get where he needs to go, see what and who he needs to see, and report on it. The writing is open and honest, showing disbelief and humour at the situations in which he finds himself. Several years ago, I read Geraldine's memoir, Nine Parts of Desire, covering the same time period, a book that developed from her gender as a woman, being able to access a world that male journalists couldn't get at, Tony's experience is that of a man, going to war zones, drinking late at night in dingy places, taking cabs alone to places he isn't sure of. What the two books have in common, besides good writing, is the connection to people. Where he goes, Tony connects with people, often the locals, but not always. He looks for background, for what normal life looks like for these people. From Libya to Yemen to Iran and many places in between he finds people and talks with them, and tells us about it. A great read.

Better Library and Learning Space

Finished May 30
Better Library and Learning Space: Projects, Trends, and Ideas edited by Les Watson

This book has contributions from 25 authors including Watson and covers public, academic, and school libraries. While the focus is on space, not services, several contributors touch on service issues. Part 1 looks at projects and trends with chapters focusing on libraries in the UK, US, China, Hong Kong, Europe, and Australasia. UK trends included open plans, technology-rich environments and increased opportunities for self-help. US case studies focused on renovations to older buildings, and trends included the need for flexible space, technology storage, modular furniture, connectivity and power sources, adjustable lighting, and security systems. The Chinese case studies discussed the different cultural history, and the gradual movement away from a book focussed environment. In Hong Kong the focus was the move towards outcome-based curriculum, technology, and interactive spaces. In Europe, libraries in the Netherlands and Germany were looked at, with strong conceptual designs as the focus. In Australia, the case studies included both urban and remote libraries and focused on social cohesion and gathering spaces, the relationship to the environment and technology, and the acknowledge of indigenous cultural.
Part 2 is a focused look at trends. The first chapter here looked at technology and change and asked the interesting question "What is the next form of technology that is the library?" a twist from the traditional way of thinking about technology and libraries. Topics included BYOD, big data, and robots as well as the move from technology in operational needs to technology in terms of user needs. The second chapter looked at digital and media literacy and discussed a participatory culture of learning. Chapter three looked at issues around library spaces. A survey reported that the top space issues were HVAC issues and noise. There was a nice quote from John Ruskin here "We seek two things of our buildings. We want them to shelter us. And we want them to speak to us." leading to a discussion on the need for areas of silence and solitude as well as areas for communal and collaborative activity. Noted here were the use of colour and graphics in addition to book stacks and furniture to define spaces. In discussing the now common reference to libraries as a third space, they noted that this is a combination of first and second places in creating a space of work, leisure, and learning with the feeling of home. The final chapter in this section looked at using a combination of rational and intuitive decision-making when designing spaces, consulting as widely as possible, and building for the future rather than the past. Mentioned here is a PEST analysis (Political, Economic, Social, and Technological) which was new to me. They suggested doing "day in the life" analyses for each type of user and staff member to show how they used new features. They also advocated for using temporary solutions as experiments. I was happy to see that we'd done a lot of these things at my library as we took new looks at our space and how to use it.
Part 3 is a collection of essays on different views of the future library. I found this section a real mix with some very academic writing and some more approachable. There were many different ideas raised here. One spoke of activity-led space usability approaches with a connection to library's USP (unique service proposition. They defined this USP as build and curate collections and disclose objects in those collections to people in support of public policy, specifically to disclose knowledge to users to enable learning in its many forms. Their view was that everything libraries do should derive from this. One writer brought up the issue of dynamic conservatism, the fight to remain the same and how it can slow change in libraries. Public service has seen move evolutionary change than revolutionary change, and this issue was illuminated with a 1980 quote from Peter Drucker "The greatest danger in times of turbulence, is not the turbulence, it is to act with yesterday's logic." Another writer looked as some examples from the Netherlands to show how architecture and community worked to connect with books in different ways at the Amsterdam Public Library and through the Architecture of Public Knowledge initiative. Another writer looked at the concept of P21 (Partners for 21st Century Skills) with a focus on information and media literacy, taking image as a starting place and using mashups and creative partnerships to move in a new direction. I liked the Steelcase scape table here. They did note that you need to be careful not to repackage analog associations in a digital form. Another view was that of the transformation from a 2D age to a 3D age. In 2D, the textbook is at the center with creativity curtailed by books, guidelines, and curricula like a giant human copier without passion. A 3D age has people learning from each other, bringing passionate talent with access to information. This age is about lifelong learning as an integral part of life. Other views included reconfigurable spaces to serve a multiplicity of functions, varied spaces, collaborative and social spaces, the importance of observational research, the concept of community, and acknowledgement of sightlines and circulation routes. Of prime importance was customers' interaction with staff, minimizing the front of house to eliminate old style fortress desks and move to integrated help points. Flexibility seems to be a common theme from space to furniture to displays.
I found the book had lots of interesting ideas that will lend themselves to any library space project.

StandOut 2.0

Finished May 29
StandOut 2.0: Assess Your Strengths. Find Your Edge. Win at Work by Marcus Buckingham

The book builds on two of his previous books: First, Break All the Rules and Now, Discover Your Strengths. Here, Buckingham looks at the tools and systems inside organizations that remain stuck in old theories, preventing the now accepted ideas presented in his earlier books from being fully applied. The center for this book is the new tool to identify your strengths. A key to access one free access to the tool online is included in each copy of the book, but if you're sharing a copy, you will need to pay a small fee to use the tool.
Buckingham has analyzed the idea of strengths and boiled it down to 9 strength roles or factors. There are: advisor, connector, creator, equalizer, influencer, pioneer, provider, stimulator, and teacher. The assessment tool shows a chart with your levels for all, but concentrates on your top two factors. The information says that you will get a weekly tip, insights, information on techniques and other ongoing help with your login. So far, even though I did the assessment nearly two weeks ago, I haven't received any weekly tips and logging in only gives me access to my report. It also says that you can customize the report by adding additional information like videos, pictures, articles, and quotes to add to others' understanding of your skills, and that the resulting annotates report can be exported to any social network, although the only options I have at my login are to send the report via email or to download it as a pdf.
It also indicates that there is a check-in tool to capture weekly priorities, track your engagement, and get customized coaching advice, but I haven't seen where to access that.
The is also an option to get a corporate account, and the book says that will allow you to do additional things like create a team dashboard, with performance and survey tools available to team leaders, which sounds interesting.
A couple of important points that are emphasized. The assessment tool is designed to show how you come across to others, not how you see yourself, so your results may surprise you.
One chapter looks at how to use your assessment information to stand out, emphasizing three lessons to build on: your genius (the combination of strengths for you as an individual) is precise; remember who you are (don't get tempted to wander off into other strength challenges); and always sharpen your edge (using activities such as the love it, loathe it exercise). You should be concentrating on what you are doing rather than what is being done to you, and making sure to go back and revisit this at least twice a year.
Buckingham also reminds the reader that innovation is a practice not an idea, which means that it is connected to others and should be thought of as a best practice.
After explaining the factors briefly, the remainder of this book looks at each factor, showing you how to describe the skills identified with that factor, how to make an immediate impact at work, how to take your performance to the next level, and some pitfalls to watch out for. It then looks at how that strength can be leveraged in the areas of leadership, management, client services, and sales. It tells you what natural advantages people with this strength have. It also provides a short section that describes how to best manage someone with your strengths.
The book also includes a technical summary of the design of the assessment tool.
I liked the assessment tool and found my results hit true to home, and thus were meaningful to me. I would like to see how some of the additional features promised in this book become available and can help me and other readers to stay on track. 

Sunday, 29 May 2016

The Long Fall

Finished May 27
The Long Fall by Walter Mosley, read by Mirron Willis

I enjoyed the last Walter Mosley book so much that I sought out another of his series. This one feature the private detective Leonid McGill and is set in New York City, mostly. This is the first book in this series and the time is 2008. Leonid has a shady background, one where he did a lot of looking for people for on the criminal side, without asking questions about why they wanted that information. He has also planted information on people he deemed as "not good," to fit his own or others' narratives. That is, in fact, how he got his current office space.
He is trying to go straight, to do legitimate work, but it is harder to disentangle himself from his past than he thought. He does a seemingly simple job of looking for four men based on their descriptions and nicknames in their youth, but begins to grow suspicious of the motive behind the search when he locates the final man of the four. But he needs the money, and the story seems believable, so he provides the information.
The characters introduced here are interesting. Leonid's wife, come back to him after an ill-fated separation, but now untrustworthy. His landlord representative, for whom he has more than professional feelings. His old clients, who still want his expertise and won't take no for an answer. The cop who knows he's done some sketchy things, and has his eye on him for good. His former associates, some of who he still relies on for their expertise and connections. Those who owe him something and are willing to do him favours because of that. His younger son, who has a good heart and immense charm, but who doesn't always make the best choices.
I will definitely be looking for more in this series.

The "Natural Inferiority" of Women

Finished May 23
The "Natural Inferiority" of Women: Outrageous Pronouncements by Misguided Males compiled by Tama Starr

This collection of quotations about the inferiority of women has been collected and organized into categories. The quotes range from the ancients to the modern, from the pithy to the weighty and include philosophers, writers, entertainers, religious figures, medical practitioners and political leaders. Some will have you open-mouthed, others laughing out loud. and still others dismayed beyond expectations. There is humour here, but the sheer volume and extent of this viewpoint toward women collected together in one place felt overwhelming in a bad, bad way. The book starts with a sadly true (even with this volume included) quote from 1614 that translates from the Latin to "One volume could never contain all the insults and satires against women."
The quotes are separated into two parts: Evil is Woman and Domesticating the Female. Each part has a few chapters. The Evil is Woman part has separate chapters for: What Is Woman?, Her Lesser Biology, Unclean and Disgusting, Insatiable as the Grave, Evil Is Woman, and The Wise Man Will Avoid Them. The Domesticating the Female part has separate chapters for: The Law of Obedience, Beat Your Wife, Women Are Masochistic, The Virtuous Woman, Her Proper Sphere, Educating the Female, and Woman's Contemptible Weaknesses.
So, you are probably wondering why I have this book to begin with. It was a gift a few years ago from my mother-in-law's cat who, although a female, obviously has limited understanding of her purchases. She apparently paid less than a dollar for it, as she has a limited budget, as she explained in the accompanying note.
Unique and definitely odd, this book had me wanting to read aloud some of the worst bits which, thankfully, my husband also found mind-boggling.