Wednesday 27 February 2013

I'll Take What She Has

Finished February 27
I'll Take What She Has by Samantha Wilde

This book alternates chapters between two friends, Annie and Nora. The two have been friends since they were young children in Iowa. Years ago, when a job opened up at the boarding school near Boston that Annie's partner Ted taught at, she called Nora to urge her to apply. Nora has blossomed there, gaining a loyal following of students and getting married to a local lawyer Alfie. Now Nora desperately wants children and is worried that nothing is happening after months of trying. Annie seems consumed by anger, anger at her boisterous children, anger at her husband's long separated wife for not signing the divorce papers, anger at the other woman at the children's centre she goes to, anger at being short of money all the time, anger at her own anger. When a new teacher arrives and seems to embody perfection, and get all the things the two women thought they wanted, they react in different ways, Nora by spending lots of time with her and Annie by pushing Nora away and becoming even more angry. When Nora's relations start to arrive with their own agendas, she isn't sure how to react.
This is a book about envy, about self-knowledge, about love and family. A feel-good book about everyday life.

Tuesday 26 February 2013

Science Book Challenge

I first heard of this challenge through the blogger Indextrious Reader last year, and had been checking the site regularly to see whether they were going to have a challenge again this year, and now they have!
Of course, Indextrious Reader has joined again, and this will be my first time participating in this challenge. I've always had a love of math and science (was actually in Honors Mathematics my first year at university), so look forward to pushing myself to read more in this area.

Here is how the challenge works.

The 2013 Science Book Challenge

  1. Read three (or more!) nonfiction books in 2013 related to the theme "Science & Culture". Your books should have something to do with science, scientists, how science operates, or the relationship of science with our culture. Your books might be popularizations of science, they might be histories, they might be biographies, they might be anthologies; they can be recent titles or older books, from the bookstore or your local library. We take a very broad view of what makes for interesting and informative science reading, looking for perspectives on science as part of culture and history.
  2. After you've read a book, write a short note about it giving your opinions of the book. Tell us what you'd tell a friend if you wanted to convince your friend to read it--or avoid it. You can read some of the existing Book Notes for ideas. You might like to read our Book-note ratings for ideas about how to evaluate your books; we include ratings with every book note.
  3. Don't worry if you find that you've read a book someone else has also read; we welcome multiple notes on one title.
  4. Get your book note to us and we'll post it with the other notes in our Book Note section. Use the book-note form or the comment form to get in touch with us.
  5. Spread the scienticity and tell other people about the Science Book Challenge, either here,, or at our Facebook group.

Probably my favourite areas of science are natural science and physics, but I'll be checking through my unread piles to see what fits, and scanning the new books at work to see what appeals in this area. 

So Good They Can't Ignore You

Finished February 24
So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love by Cal Newport

I'd seen a mention of this book and was intrigued. The book captured me right from the get go. It counters the prevalent mindset (started for real purposes in the 1970's) that to have work you really enjoy, find what you are passionate about and make a job out of that. Newport digs deep into this premise, finding that it isn't as simple as that. He comes up with four rules around finding work you love.
Rule #1 is Don't Follow Your Passion. He looks at successful people, including many who espouse the "follow your passion" mantra and finds that even they didn't follow that path. Those that do have a passion, and follow that without proper preparation find themselves failing. So following it can actually be dangerous to your continued happiness.
Rule #2 is Be So Good They Can't Ignore You (or, the Importance of Skill). Newport looks at a number of people who are working in something they are passionate about and thus loving their work, and finds the truth behind their stories is getting really good at what they do, even better if it is something relatively rare. He calls this Career Capital. Trying to work at a passion without the practiced skills won't get you where you want to go. Here is where I hear my parents' voices exhorting hard work, because hard work, not just lots of work, but work that is actually challenging and difficult and success with it takes you to the next level is what is necessary. You have to be willing to seek out that work, and keep doing it, getting better with every iteration, until others see that skill in you and are willing to pay you for it. That pay may be in money, time, or other things, but that is what takes you further toward working with real passion.
Rule #3 is Turn Down a Promotion (or, the Importance of Control). Here, Newport shows that finding real passion in one's work means having a certain level of control about what you do and how you do it. Again, this is not something you can try without having those skills in place. This is about choosing what path you take, knowing that you can make a successful life with your skills in different ways and choosing the path that offers you the level of control you want, even if others try to dissuade you. As he says, because you have those skills, others are likely to try to talk you out of taking this path. Employers may value you highly and not want to give up even a portion of your time, colleagues may not understand you turning down a promotion that limits your control of your work due to the high compensation associated with it. That is why skills are important here, because if you try to exert control without having those skills, then you won't get that control. Here he talks about control traps and the law of financial viability, which is "using money as a way of determining whether or not you have enough career capital to succeed with a pursuit".
His Rule #4 is Think Small, Act Big (or, the Importance of Mission) which is about finding that unifying mission to your professional life that gives you that satisfaction or love of work which we aspire to. Again, he finds that you have to get things in the right order and finding a true mission only comes when we have gained those skills and control that we can see the possibilities and links between things. Visibility is important here, where you can market those ideas in a venue that draws you recognition. This means that you need to have the skills to be one of the top in your field (and this field can be quite narrow) so that you are working at the leading edge of discovery, in what he calls the adjacent possible. He also talks about the importance of the law of remarkability, the need for a project to be remarkable both in the drawing attention meaning and the venue that is conducive to such attention.
He wraps up the book with how he has applied and is applying these rules to his own life, the thought processes he follows for each and the actions he takes to further his career.
This book offers a lot to think about, and would be a great gift for a graduate to get them on the right track earlier.

Saturday 23 February 2013

The Rug Merchant

Finished February 23
The Rug Merchant by Meg Mullins

Ushman Khan is a rug merchant in New York City. He came to the United States from Iran three years, leaving his wife and invalid mother back home. His wife arranged his emigration, defeated after five miscarriages. She chooses the rugs and ships them to him and he sells them, support his family back home, waiting for the day when his wife will join him.
But one day, he is told that this will never happen, that his wife has found another man, is having a baby, and is leaving him forever. Ushman is devastated and finds himself wandering, trying to get past his loneliness, trying to find a way forward. When he encounters Stella, a young college student, with her own sadness, there is a connection and the unlikely couple find themselves comforting each other, and beginning to care about each other. The story also involves one of Ushman's best clients, Mrs. Roberts, a woman who has bought many carpets from him, and seems to always want more than he can give her. As Mrs. Roberts reveals her own sadness, Ushman finds himself offering her comfort as well.
This is an interesting book about connecting with others, about the essential humanity in all of us, about the fact that while we will all encounter sadness, we will also all encounter joy.

Thursday 21 February 2013

Give Me Everything You Have

Finished February 21
Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked by James Lasdun, read by Robin Sachs

James Lasdun gives an insightful and open account of his stalking by a former student. Starting as a straightforward exchange when she was working on a novel, chapters of which he had read and encouraged her in when she was his student, this relationship gradually devolves into something else entirely. The student approached him a couple of years after the met when she was in his creative writing class, and as he really thought her writing good, he encouraged her and even introduced her to people he thought would be helpful to her writing career.
But the email interactions first became overly friendly, and then hateful and aggressive. She eventually moved into posting comments online, making public accusations of plagiarism and sexually inappropriate behaviour, and impersonating others when making such statements. She progressed into attacks on others he had professional and personal relationships with and sent emails to current and potential employers.
Despite these things, Lasdun found he had little recourse in any legal sense, an interesting development of the Internet Age, showing that some aspects haven't entirely caught up to the realities yet.
He touches on mental illness, reputation, racism, and social norms and looks into his own reactions and how he learns to control what he can and learns to deal with what he can't control.
A window on a very difficult and increasingly present phenomenon.

The Advantage

Finished February 20
The Advantage: why organizational health trumps everything else in business by Patrick Lencioni

The Globe and Mail said this was one of the top business books of 2012, and since I am interested in continuously improving our organizational health, I was interested.
Lencioni lays out the process clearly here, giving short examples where appropriate and referring to his own experiences, good and bad. The process uses a mode with four disciplines, each building on the one before. They are: Build a Cohesive Leadership Team; Create Clarity; Overcommunicate Clarity; and Reinforce Clarity. Interestingly, we had already been doing some of the steps in each discipline at my work, and have been particularly finding ourselves beginning to gel as a management team. I took copious notes while reading and shared a detailed summary with the team, hoping to initiate discussion. The book also includes a great chapter on meetings, some of which I can definitely use (harder in an environment such as mine where there is shift work). In short, I can definitely see why this made the top ten and look forward to applying the things I learned from it.

Wednesday 20 February 2013


Finished February 20
Harvest by Jim Crace

This novel is set at a remote village in England at some unspecified time in the pre-industrial age. It is a time when sheep are becoming a more prominent fixture on farming estates, and there is a movement of workers from rural to urban areas. A time of change.
In this remote estate, Walter Thirsk is a bit of a misfit. He came to the estate as a young man with his master as a result of his master's marriage. He married a local estate worker, and tried to fit in. Now he is aging, his own wife has died, as has his master's wife, and change is coming. This harvest season a man has come to the estate and is working on a chart of the land and its features. Master Kent asks Walter to assist this man, and Walter learns in confidence that the estate will be converted to sheep farming.
One morning the workers awake to two fires. One is the master's stable and dovecote, and the other the fire burned by newly arrived workers, a traditional sign of occupancy recognized as a right to stay. Even though signs point to some local men as being responsible for the stable fire, the blame is placed on the newcomers, and that act and its subsequent repercussions result in a drastic change in the lives of the workers, as much as the coming change to the farming itself.
Walter is both removed and a part of this settlement, and finds himself distanced and able to describe the course of events as both an outsider and as a vital part of the community.
A novel of change and choices.


Finished February 18
Taken by Edward Bloor

This book is set in the future, in 2035. Charity Meyers lives on a gated estate in Florida with her father and her ex-stepmother. Yes, you read that right. Her father and stepmother are in the process of divorcing, but her stepmother,Mickie, still lives some of the time in the family home. Mickie is a journalist specializing in telling stories, and lately she has been telling stories in which Charity plays a leading role. Right now she is doing "An Edwardian Christmas" from the decorations and songs down to the food, expecting Charity to do what she is told and respond to the prompts she is given. Charity has one friend, Patience, in her small class, taught to children of that age in the estate. She also gets classes via teleconference from Manhattan. She is not happy, and hasn't been since her mother died a few years ago of melanoma. Her father, a doctor, threw himself into work, inventing a self-tanning concoction that sells like hotcakes, attracting said stepmother.
After moving to the estate, Charity's only real comforter was the main, Victoria, a Hispanic woman, working as a servant to save money to go to college.
Kidnapping is rampant, and the children are trained in what to do. Charity has even written a paper on the subject for school. But when she is kidnapped, things don't happen as she expected, and she isn't prepared for what they really want of her.
A tale of humanity, of the growing division between classes, of ignorance and of real life. It reminds you to take the time to enjoy living.

Saturday 16 February 2013

New York Drawings

Finished February 16
New York Drawings: a decade of covers, comics, illustrations, and sketches from the pages of The New Yorker and beyond by Adrian Tomine

This collection intrigued me from the cover, which was actually a The New Yorker cover. It shows a young woman on a subway train reading a book, looking through a window to see a young man on another subway train going in the opposite direction, reading the same book. I liked the image, and was interested to see what else he had done.
The book is structured with the images, placed nicely on the page, with just their titles, where they were published, and the date of publication. There is a section of notes at the end that explains the context of the images: what they were accompanying, if anything; the artist's intention (sometimes), and other commentary. I didn't discover the notes until I'd looked through all the images, so then I went back to the beginning again and looked through them all again, checking the notes as I went.
Because I hadn't seem the images in context originally, when they were published, my first round left me unclear for many what their context and purpose were. The notes helped immensely with this and I found them very useful. I am of two minds as to whether they should have been included with the image, as I think they would have cluttered the clear pages, but they were essential to my understanding and appreciating the images.

Dear Mr. Longfellow

Finished February 16
Dear Mr. Longfellow: Letters to and from the Children's Poet by Sydelle Pearl

This short book combines letters with a simple biography of Longfellow, along with some of his poetry. Although it isn't explicitly stated, I inferred from some of the writing that this book is aimed at children.
I found the letters interesting. The author includes facsimiles of the letters as well as separate text versions of the letters. The facsimiles were interesting to see the style and quality of the handwriting of that period by children. There weren't a lot of letters included, but the book isn't that long either. One gets a sense of the period from the letters too.
I would say that this book is a good introduction to Longfellow, especially for the younger crowd.
I was unfamiliar with his personal life and story before reading this and found it enlightening. One interesting coincidence is that a book I read earlier this year, The Fort by Bernard Cornwell, has as one of its main characters the real life figure of General Peleg Wadsworth, who was Longfellow's grandfather. I always enjoy finding links between books I have read.

Thursday 14 February 2013

Moonlit Mind

Finished February 14
Moonlit Mind by Dean Koontz, performed by Peter Berkrot

This short book has elements of fantasy and horror, and is set in an unnamed city in recent times. Crispin has lived on the streets for three years and a few months, since he was nine. As he turns thirteen, he is led to return to the house he fled.
The book alternates between the present and the times before and when Crispin fled his home in fear for his life. As it unfolds, we gradually learn just what happened that night and why Crispin feels guilt and a sense of something unfinished.
Crispin has been stalked since he fled, by humans under the force of evil. He has been granted a dog protector, and has found what things (large religious objects, places of true religious sanctuary, and running water) confuse those who follow him and offer him protection from them. He has also found a friend in Amity, a young woman who has also fled evil. Amity offers him not only friendship, but also an occasional place to stay, and support. She knows his story and encourages him in fulfilling the unfinished.
A story of magic, good and evil, and the unknown world around us all.

When It Happens to You

Finished February 13
When It Happens to You: a novel in stories by Molly Ringwald

I spotted this book on our new fiction shelf at work a few weeks ago, but got delayed on reading it until now. At the time, I said "Molly Ringwald wrote a novel?" and picked it up. I have always liked her as an actor and was intrigued, wanting to see what kind of writer she was. Well, the answer is a good one. I really enjoyed this book. It is told from several different points of view, from a variety of people who interact with each other throughout.
It is about marriage, love, fidelity, identity and being human. No one here is perfect, and we see the interactions between wives and husbands, lovers, parents and children (both grown and young) and friends. We see the results of infidelity, loss, and good intentions gone wrong. We see what happens when wanting what is best for someone isn't always helpful. We see what happens when there is not enough honesty, and when there is too much. We see love in all its forms.
Highly enjoyable.

Sunday 10 February 2013

Saturday Night Widows

Finished February 10
Saturday Night Widows: the Adventures of Six Friends Remaking Their Lives by Becky Aikman

The book chronicles a year in the lives of six women, all widows, none of whom knew each other before their first meeting. Becky had tried to go to a widows support group a few months after her husband passed away from cancer, but was asked not to return. She thought their had to be a better way than the short experience she had there of focusing on one's grief, and began research on this type of loss.
She participated in a psychological study, and discussed current research with a couple of psychologists doing research in the area of grief. And she got the idea to find other women who had been widowed relatively young and get together once a month to support each other in moving forward with their lives. The women all live in or near New York City, and have been widowed for between 5 months and 5 years at their first meeting. They range in age from their 30s to their 50s, and some have children and some don't. I would describe them as middle to upper middle class, and well-educated. Becky herself is already remarried by the time of their first meeting.
As she chronicles their growing friendship, the strong bond that grows between them, and their lives moving forward, we see that the women take the positive outlook, and while they will never stop loving their husbands, they do move forward with their lives and gain new experiences, and enter new relationships.
This is an interesting and uplifting book that begins with loss, but ends with optimism for the future.

Saturday 9 February 2013

Everybody Has Everything

Finished February 9
Everybody has Everything by Katrina Onstad

This novel has a couple, Ana and James, who are thrust into a situation with no warning. Their friends Marcus and Sarah have been in a car accident and Marcus is dead, while Sarah is in a coma. Marcus and Sarah's 2 1/2 year old son Finn is not injured, and Ana and James are named as the legal guardians in Sarah and Marcus's wills. With Sarah's situation uncertain, the couple take charge of Finn, and this sudden change to their lives changes their relationship and finds them questioning their ability to be parents.
Ana is a research lawyer hoping to make partner, a woman who organizes her house to a pristine minimalism. Her unstable childhood and difficult relationship with her mother has her scared about her own parenting skills. James desire to be a father has him jumping into the situation with both feet, and since he was recently laid off from his television job, he has the time to be the primary caregiver.
As the two adjust to Finn, and to how their own relationship changes, we see the emotions both good and bad that are felt by both of them.
This is an interesting situation and the characters are complex and interesting. Very enjoyable read.

Letters from the Lost

Finished February 9
Letters from the Lost: a memoir of discovery by Helen Waldstein Wilkes

This book is a compilation of letters from Helen's relatives that never made it out of the Czech Republic to safety and most of whom died in the Holocaust. There is also a few letters from an uncle that survived the camps, but was utterly changed by them. More than the letters, the book describes Helen's parents' own flight to Canada, their struggles to make a living in their adopted country, and the silence they maintained about the lost family. Helen describes this well, including her own experiences with exclusion and her gradual interest in the past. She talks about her research, her visits to the Czech Republic, searching for news of her family and revisiting family homes and memories. A moving book, open and honest about the difficulties and the rewards of such a search.

Wednesday 6 February 2013

The Burma Effect

Finished February 6
The Burma Effect by Michael E. Rose

This is the second book I've read by Rose. The first was The Tsunami File. This one is actually set earlier, in 2001. Frank Delaney, Canadian journalist and sometime CSIS spy is at home near Ottawa readying his boat for the water when he gets a call from CSIS asking him to go to Thailand to find out what happened to another Canadian journalist who seems to have gone missing, Nathan Kellner. Frank knows Kellner fairly well and tries to find out more about what he may have been working on by visiting Kellner's editor in London on his way to Bangkok. Once in Bangkok, he looks for more information again, but soon discovers himself in danger. Before he knows it, he is involved in dangerous events out of his control, and must try to survive and get help. Moving from Thailand to Burma and back again, this eventful thriller will keep you reading. A good plot and an interesting side of Frank.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Dear Lila

Finished February 5
Dear Lila: life on an Alberta Farm in 1925 As Recorded in Letters Saved by Lila Blackburn compiled by Robert H. Blackburn

This book came my way from my mother-in-law, who lent it to me after the recent death of my father-in-law. He was born in Alberta, as was I, and therefore the shared interest.
Robert Blackburn not only compiled these letters, but also added some helpful annotations, an introduction, and a postscript. These gave helpful background information on his family, the life Lila led before these letters, and her life after.
The letters range from January 1925 to March 1926 and were sent to Lila when she went to California for a health break. She was delicate in health most of her life and died at the young age of 47. Most of the letters are from her brother John, Robert's father, and tell a good story of life in rural Alberta during this time. He lived on a farm near Lavoy, and Lila's father lived in Tofield. Besides the letters from John, other letters are from her father, uncle and aunts. There are also notes, often attached to John's letters from her sister-in-law Palma. John has a good writing voice, with touches of humour and good description. This is a very enjoyable collection, nicely put together. [Excuse the photo's blurriness as I had to take my own]

Monday 4 February 2013

Love Saves the Day

Finished February 3
Loves Saves the Day by Gwen Cooper

As a cat lover, I was immediately attracted to this book, although also a bit leery. Leery because the cat is the main narrator, and some books I've read with an animal narrator aren't so good. This one is however, and I liked the cat Prudence.
As the book begins, Prudence has been living with Sarah, but Sarah hasn't been home the last few days. Eventually, Sarah's daughter Laura comes with her husband Josh and they pack up a bunch of Sarah's stuff and take Prudence home with them.
We see Prudence come to a gradual understanding of what has happened, and watch as she adjusts to her new home and becomes a loved part of Laura and Josh's family.
There are also chapters where Laura or Sarah is the central character, although these sections are more third person. They are there to cover those times when Prudence would not be present to observe and comment, or to give background story (particularly in the case of Sarah). We see how the relationship between Sarah and Laura deteriorated, and what led to that life in the first place.
This is a book about relationships, and love, and about focusing on what is important in life. A feel good novel with a few weepy moments. Very enjoyable.

Good Prose

Finished February 1
Good Prose: the Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd

This book is not only a look at writing nonfiction, but also editing it, and the relationship between the writer and the editor. Todd is Kidder's longtime editor (40 years working together) and here they look at the same writing from both sides of it. The talk about their relationship in particular, but also about the writer-editor relationship in general.
There are chapters on different types of nonfiction writing: narrative, memoir, and essay, as well as a chapter on the issue of accuracy. With a few big publicity books getting exposed as more fictional then they made themselves out to be, this chapter was a particularly interesting one as they looked at the nuances of nonfiction, particularly memoir.
There is also a chapter on style, and the different types. They talked about the need to find your own style and to work to refine it, to individualize it. The next chapter is a more general one on the art of nonfiction, the financial side of it, and how the writer balances the two.
They also talk about being edited and about editing from both sides. Todd has written a book as well, and had Kidder look at it and give some comments, so he talked about how it felt to have things turned around from their usual relationship. This chapter also includes their personal history together.
At the end, the include a section on usage and grammar which I found very interesting. Lots of mentions both here and earlier of Fowler's Modern English Usage, a book I wasn't familiar with. I used the Canadian Guide to Modern English by Corbin, Perrin, and Buxton myself (my mother had used it in her university days as well, and I bought my own copy used when I went to university). Their point about using something to guide one to proper usage is a good one. They also give a good bibliography of writing books at the end.
A very interesting book, with insights into both writing and the author's own lives.