Thursday, 21 May 2015

All Saints

Finished May 20
All Saints: Stories by K.D. Miller

This collection of linked stories has at its heart a small Anglican church, All Saints. The stories range over decades and we see characters at various stages of their lives. The priest at the church, Simon, appears in several of the stories. The stories range widely with the characters embodying people at various points in their lives. At the heart of all the stories though is relationship. The relationships range from romantic love, to abusive relationships, from friendship to guidance, We see the characters vulnerability, the side they don't show to others, but we also see their capacity to care, to love, and to be a part of their community.
Some of the stories are disturbing, and some touching. All capture the reader and bring them into the lives as they are experienced.

Rejection Proof

Finished May 18
Rejection Proof: How I Beat Fear and Became Invincible Through 100 Days of Rejection by Jia Jiang

Jiang describes his experiences learning how to take the risks necessary to get to the life he wants to live. Jiang was born in China and from a young age envisioned himself as an entrepreneur. He did well in school and was able to go to high school in the U.S. on an exchange program. He then went on to university and a master's degree in the U.S. He got a good job at a successful company and married happily. But he still yearned for the entrepreneurial dream he'd had as a child. His wife urged him to quit his job and work as hard as he could for six months to fulfill this dream. So he did.
He got together a group of people, and after four months of hard work found his concept rejected by investors. This is how his story of rejection-proofing himself begins. He found himself inspired by a website called Rejection Therapy created by Jason Comely to face rejection. He started a blog called 100 Days of Rejection. And he began seeking out situations where he expected to be rejected. Even with that expectation, he found it difficult. But something interesting happened. On his third try, he wasn't rejected, but instead the person he asked worked to accommodate his unusual request. And that happened again on his sixth request.
The blog post for his third request was picked up by Reddit, and went viral, catapulting him into unexpected fame, and offering him interesting opportunities. When faced with new options for his future, Jiang decided to continue his journey into overcoming rejection and focus on a way to overcome the fear of rejection. This led him to research rejection and our reactions to it, and he includes his findings here.
His experiences caused him to rethink rejection, recognizing it not as a whole rejection of the person asking, but as an interaction between two people, based on the opinion of the rejector, something that could be influenced by many factors having nothing to do with the requester at all. This rethinking caused him to look harder at how different strategies could be undertaken to turn that initial no into a yes. This included asking different people, asking why to see what the reasoning behind the rejection was and looking for a way to change the ask to avoid this reason, asking for alternatives to the initial request, looking to collaborate with the rejector to find a way to make it work, and changing the environment of the request.
One thing he learned quickly was not to argue, but to show interest in the reasons, and understanding of the situation. He found that just as it helped him to adjust his request to know why the request was rejected, knowing his reasons for asking helped the rejector collaborate with him for a way to accommodate his request. He found it was important not to make assumptions about the mindset, interest, or needs of others when making his request, and that considering who to select to make the request from was helpful in a successful interaction.
His success also forced him to focus on the other side of the interaction, how to say no to a request he got himself. He, like many of us, didn't like having to turn down people's requests, but he was inundated by so many that he had to. So he looked at how to do this in a good way by looking at how people had responded to him.
He discovered ways to look at rejection in a positive light by examining the reasons for it, and using rejection to motivate him to try harder or work differently towards his goal. This process also led to him finding new meaning in the process in several ways. One was finding empathy: he was better able to understand others. Another was finding value by learning what really mattered to him when it came down to it. A third was finding his mission, his focus and creating a new beginning for himself based on it. He found the freedom that asking gave him, to have new experiences, make new connections to other people, and become aware of what is lost by not asking in the first place. He also found a greater acceptance of himself, finding the importance of fulfilling that inner need for approval before looking to others.
His journey have him the ability to detach the experience from the expectation of results, finding that being results-oriented actually led to worse results because it leaves you unprepared for feedback that could be helpful. He was able to analyse a situation and focus on what he could control, and lay aside the worry about all the elements that he couldn't. This isn't something that he could learn and move on from. He found that he needs to keep exercising that "fear of rejection" muscle to keep it strong.
This is an insightful book that will encourage readers to go after their goals in a thoughtful and structured way.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The Night Stages

Finished May 17
The Night Stages by Jane Urquhart

Tamara is a woman at a point of crisis in her life. It is the early sixties and she has been in a relationship with a man who can't commit to her in the way she wants. She runs from the situation, driving across Ireland to the Dublin airport and taking a flight to New York. When the plane lands for refueling at Gander, Newfoundland, the airport there fogs in, and she is grounded for hours. She notices a large mural in the airport, and moves back and forth between reflecting on her life and studying the mural.
Tamara is from a well-off family, Her father is involved in construction, providing concrete and other resources for building projects. Tamara has rebelled against her family, first as a tomboy running a bit wild, then becoming a pilot for the Air Transport Auxiliary during World War II, then leaving her husband for a man from a lower class and running off to Ireland with him. Her most recent relationship is with another Irishman, Niall, a meteorologist who has his own issues. Niall is haunted by guilt over his actions that contributed to his younger brother Kieran leaving. Kieran hasn't been heard from in years, and Niall has taken every opportunity he could to search for his brother. We hear Niall's story as he tells it to Tamara.
A second narrator in the novel is Kieran himself, telling the story of his own childhood, his breakdown after his mother's death, his subsequent life living in a small village, gaining a basic education, working as a labourer and getting involved in bicycling. Kieran lived with the family housekeeper Gerry-Annie beginning shortly after his mother's death, and became enamored of a bike left behind by someone leaving the area. The bike, christened the Purple Hornet by Kieran, leads to his future in ways he never envisioned.
The third narrator is Kenneth Lochhead, the painter of the mural at Gander. Lochhead is a real historical figure and Urquhart acknowledges this while creating his story. The story of the mural is an interesting one. Done in egg tempura, it took something like 5000 eggs to create and incorporated figures from Lochhead's past.
The Irish portions of the story are from County Kerry, and bring the country to life vividly.
This story makes beautiful use of language and reveals the unpredictable nature of love.

The Children's Blizzard

Finished May 12
The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin

This fascinating slice of history looks at one of the worst storms ever recorded. The most devastation from the storm occurred on January 12, 1888 over the Dakota Territory, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa. and because the early part of the day had been warmer and nicer than many days previously. Deaths are estimated at between 250 and 500, and several survivors died later as a result of what happened to them in the storm. The name of the book is a reference to the large numbers of children who lost their lives, catching so many of them at school. Because of the warmer weather at the beginning of the day, many didn't have adequate clothing.
There is a small map included that shows the line of the storm across the area at three points in time: 6:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m.
The first chapter covers the immigrants to this area of the country, showing their origins, their reasons for leaving their home countries, and the journeys they took to get there. Laskin focuses on some of the families here, Some were Germans, Mennonites from the Ukraine, often referred to as Schweizers due to their original origins in Switzerland. One group consisted of 53 families from several villages near each other, that began their journey in 1874. Another large group of immigrants were from Norway. These came in smaller groups, sometimes just a couple of people, with more members of the family following later. I found this interesting as my own ethnic background includes both these cultures.
The second chapter looks at the earlier trials the settlers were afflicted with, from plagues of grasshoppers and disease to earlier blizzards. Particular mention is made of a series of blizzards from January through April 1873, the Snow Winter of 1880-1881, and the Winter of Blue Snow (1886-87). It makes mention of some of the effects like towering snow features and the ice crystals that plugged the nostrils of cattle, killing them. This chapter also sets the scene for this blizzard: the sun dogs during the day and snow overnight on January 11th, and the sunny, warm, calm, foggy morning of January 12th.
Chapter 3 looks at the weather, tracing the storms roots back to Canada, and looking at the weather processes that led to the blizzard. We understand the high pressure that caused a high-amplitude ridge that preceded the storm.
The fourth chapter looks at the weather office newly setup up in Saint Paul the fall of 1887, and we understand that the signal office was part of the military and thus subject to the bureaucracy of military orders and hierarchy. First lieutenant Thomas Mayhew Woodruff was the signal officer for the office, but the office was created due to pressure from local civilians led by Professor Payne of the local university and director of the Minnesota State Weather Service since its inception in 1883. The politics involved in receiving and dispersing weather data through specific communication channels through this local disagreement was one factor in the large loss of life.
Chapter 5 discusses the cold front itself, how it moved, and what weather systems led to it. We learn that the idea of cold and warm fronts wasn't really understood until after World War I.
Chapter 6 tells of the arrival of the storm. This tells the story of individuals and groups of people as the storm hit. It moved in very quickly, and with so many people either outside or away from home, particularly children and teachers at school, difficult decisions had to be made around whether to shelter in place or try for somewhere safer.
Chapter 7 tells us of the nature of the storm, the huge amounts of electricity in the air as the storm began, and the denseness and small size of the mix of shattered snow crystals, ice pellets and water droplets that made it almost impossible to see, breathe, or move forward against the storm.
Chapter 8 goes into detail on the physiological reactions of those caught out in the storm, the body's natural reaction to the cold, wind, and damp that it faced. Again, we are given the stories of individuals and shown how they were slowly overcome by the intense weather.
The ninth chapter leads us into the following day, January 13th where people ventured from their refuges, either to continue their journey home, or to venture out to find those who hadn't returned. Again this tells individual tales of amazing survival, sudden death after surviving the storm itself, and the terrible frostbite that affected many.
Following this we see the further progression of the storm as it continued south, moving down through Texas and Louisiana and on to Mexico, reaching farther than nearly any recorded storms have before or since.
An interesting feature of the aftermath is the media reaction, particularly its focus on women survivors, teachers that saved their students, or tried desperately to, young women who lost limbs to frostbite after getting stuck outside. Laskin shows us the funerals, the lost livestock, the changes to the weather service that resulted, and what was found in the spring thaw that year.
My copy of the book also had an interview with the author about how he came to write this history and reactions from readers who had family that lived through it.
A wonderful, emotional, and eye-opening read.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Shadow Tag

Finished May 7
Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich

A novel about a dysfunctional marriage. Irene and Gil live in Minneapolis with their three children, Florian, Riel, and Stoney. Gil is an artist, and while he did landscapes before he met Irene, she has been him subject ever since. He is older than her and while they both are native, her bloodline is stronger than his, something that he always feels. Gil wants to control, and Irene has begun to feel stifled by this control. His paintings of her have grown darker over the years, and Irene has begun to take her refuge in wine, something Gil encourages.
But Irene's resentment has grown, and as the violence in their marriage has started to affect the children, she has started to hide her feelings. She knows that he has been reading her diary, and so she has written things in it to control him. Her real diary is hidden somewhere he cannot reach.
The two older children, Florian and Riel have been watching their parents, talking with each other, and discussing possibilities. Unexpectedly, Irene is still mourning the loss of her mother a couple of years earlier and when she finds someone else she can call family, it gives her the strength to continue her struggle to free herself from Gil.
The bond, however dysfunctional, between these two is a complex one. They need each other, but are very bad for each other. The playing out of their relationship seems almost inevitable, even as you are wishing it could be different.
This is a book that has complex characters, and a relationship between them just as complex. I found it a book that I had to read in short sections, wanting to think about it before picking it up again.

Road to Reckoning

Finished May 7
Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner, read by Holter Graham

This novel is told by a man looking back at the experiences of just a few days, experiences that changed his life forever.
The year is 1837. Thomas Walker is twelve and has lived in New York all his life. He has been homeschooled by his aunt who lives with him and his father. His father has often taken him with him as he went door-to-door selling spectacles. But his father has now decided to try selling Samuel Colt's new invention, the Improved Revolving Gun, and again he wants Thomas with him.
After visiting Colt's business in New Jersey, the two set off across Pennsylvania with their horse and wagon, sample merchandise, an order book, and supplies.
By chance, they come across a group of men looking for trouble, looking hard enough to follow the two travellers when they try to avoid such trouble, and Thomas' father is murdered, and most of his their belongings stolen.
Thomas goes back to the last two that they visited, to the shopkeeper they sold their last order to, and where they first met the men that attacked them. There, Thomas finds an older man, one with a long history of defying trouble, one who was once an Indiana Ranger. His name is Henry Stands, and he refuses the request to escort Thomas back east, to a town that has law that can take on Thomas' problem. But Thomas sees his chance, and takes matters into his own hands.
As the two go along, they find that it isn't just a matter of travelling back to the town with county lawmen, but they must also evade the thieves that have had second thoughts about letting Thomas go, and about other unsavory characters, some obvious, some not, that lie along their route.
This is a beautifully told tale, one of a boy forced into dealing with adult issues too soon, and dealing with a devastating loss. It is a tale of the history of the revolver, and the changes it brought to America. It is the tale of a man looking back, with the knowledge of the life lived since.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Bonsai

Finished May 4 
Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra, translated by Carolina de Robertis

This short novel has 5 parts, all centered around a relationship between Emilia and Julio, two young Chileans. The first part, Mass, tells of the meeting between the two and gives a little of their back history. The second part, Tantalia, tells of their relationship. The title takes its name from a short story that is related to the end of their relationship.
The third part, Loans, takes us to the long friendship, begun as children, between Emilia and Anita. We see how they have a habit of borrowing each other's belongings, sometimes for a short period of time, sometimes longer, and how comfortable they are with this.
Spares focuses on Julio and his life, what he does for a living, and how he portrays himself to others.
The last part, Two Drawings, gives us both Emilia and Julio's stories again, and we see how they still touch years later.
This is a story that rambles a bit, that moves outside of itself to give the reader commentary. Unusual, but interesting.