Friday, June 28, 2013

Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds

Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds is a beautiful collection of poetry which, together tell the story of her divorce.  She takes the details of her life, from the moment her husband says he wants a divorce through her own acceptance of her new status us an unmarried woman.  The loss of identity that follows the rejection of someone who knows you better than anyone else and who promised to love you until you both died simmers in the lines when she writes “I believe he is not coming back. Something / has died, inside me, believing that” even as a few poems later she details the falling in love, the challenges that come with letting go (Known to Be Left).

Some poems resonate with influences including Mother Goose and, unless I am thoroughly mistaken, Elizabeth Bishop.  And even as she comes to the point of acceptance, there is the confession “I did not know him, I knew my idea / of him” (Slowly He Starts).  While highly personal, the emotions are familiar: the confusion of being rejected, replaced.  And, with acceptance comes a gratitude of what was shared, all of the poems that precede “Poem of Thanks” and, finally, “What Left?” where the poet is not only able to celebrate the courage it took for her to survive but even the courage it took her husband to free them both from a marriage that was no longer suited. 

At times painful, this poetry collection is ultimately healing in its celebration of how love lasts even when relationships end.  

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Children of Henry VIII by Alison Weir

The Children of Henry VIII by Alison Weir is a nonfiction book about some of the Tudor children and was originally published under the title Children of England which, in my mind, is a more apropos title.  The problem with this book is that Weir doesn’t include one of the king’s bastard sons, Henry Fitzhugh, and does focus some of her chapters on Jane Grey, the niece, not daughter, of Henry VIII.  While I understand there isn’t much content about this particular child, it makes the title of the book a bit misleading.  Perhaps a better title would have been The Tudor Children?  I don’t know.  

I do know, after reading John Guy’s The Children of Henry VIII, I was curious to compare the two books and I’m glad I did.  Weir’s exploration of history is far more fun to read.  Guy chose not to get too detailed in his book but there is so much interesting information that Weir weaves a narrative that’s as good as any novel.  In fact, better than some novels.  I learned a few things about Mary in particular and, the very fact that I had just finished reading a biography about her life as well as the lives of her siblings, is saying a lot. But, because Guy alludes rather than explains, the significance of so many relationships are never fully realized.  Under Weir's research, the relationships become more relevant and interesting.  Although I had known about Reginald Pole and Mary's difficult marriage but her adolescence was more provocative in Weir's book.  

In many ways, Mary becomes more sympathetic.  For those hoping to read a lot about Elizabeth, however, this is not the book for you.  Weir has written about Elizabeth and this book ends with a brief epilogue in which the new monarch learns of her half-sister's death.  I did, however, enjoy reading more about Edward VI and if Mary seemed more sympathetic, he became less so for me.  Both were fundamentalist in their beliefs, refusing to leave room for any other interpretations.  Under Edward, there is little doubt that the nation would have been as violently oppressed as it was under Mary only the victims would have been Catholic instead of Anglican or Protestant.  All of the childhood indulgences and problems both experienced highlight just how remarkable Elizabeth was as a queen and ruler of England.

Ultimately, Guy's decision to not get too detailed sucked the life out of a highly dramatic era in British history.  Weir never allows the layers of details to become boring.  The details add flavor to, enhance rather than bog down, the story.  There is a liveliness to her prose utterly lacking in Guy’s book, and I had a lot more of fun reading this book, in spite of the misleading title.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Clean by David Sheff

Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy
by David Sheff is a unique look at the disease of addiction, told through the journalistic lens of a man with first-hand experience.  For those who are not aware, David Sheff’s son is an addict.  Both he and his son have published memoirs about their experiences and it is these memoirs that compelled me to read this book.

The author offers personal stories from his own experience as well as that of others.  The subjective stories serve as a foundation for the more objective research that supports his contentions that addiction is a disease and, therefore, must be treated as such.  Unfortunately, the stigma of addiction is not perceived in the same way as addiction for, after all, the addict has a choice.  Use or don’t use. How is this a disease?

And this is where Sheff excels because he is able to explain why addiction should be defined as a disease.  Furthermore, it should be treated as such.  A patient who has a remission is no less guilty of failure than an addict who has a relapse because addiction causes neurological changes in the addict’s brain making the option of choice impossible.  And while I can agree with what Sheff says, strongly supported with scientific evidence, it is not always easy to feel the truth on a more personal level.  Nonetheless, I found myself nodding when he drew a parallel between how an addict is not unlike an obese person who has a choice to consume something the first time but then has that choice removed by a genetic chemical reaction beyond the individual control.

Sheff challenges a lot of sacred cows.  He does not see the “twelve steps” as the only real solution to addiction.  He dares to suggest that alcohol is no less tolerable than methamphetamine.  He even dares to suggest that waiting until the addict hits “rock bottom” is a dangerous game to play when some addicts are heading towards self-destruction.  He pulls no punches and hits all of his points hard.  Whether you agree with him or not, he demands attention.  Where some writers would invite the reader to consider the information offered, he shoves the reader’s nose in the reality of addiction and then asks, “What now?”

A great book to invite the reader to think, to reconsider, to possibly redefine, even where there are some areas with which the individual may disagree with the author’s assessment.   

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Clash of Kings by George R R Martin

A Clash of Kings by George R R Martin is the second book in his Song of Ice and Fire series.  It does a brilliant job of picking up where the first book left off and carrying the story forward.  I, however, did not do a brilliant job reading it. 

Let me back up a bit.  I had decided I would read the books before the following season of Game of Thrones began. In other words, I read book one when season one ended.  This was an excellent way for me to review the previous season’s events and keep up with where the story was heading.  And it worked very well between seasons 1 and 2.  Then I lost my mind.  Or my way.  Or something.  I ended up forgetting to read A Clash of Kings and skipped ahead to A Storm of Swords.  I remember thinking, “Wow, I really forgot a lot of stuff from the second book.”  Eventually I realized I hadn’t read it at all.  Not even one chapter of it!

Truth is, I think I forgot to read the second book because I was studying so much and was so burnt out on medical coding.   But that’s neither here nor there.  After all, this is supposed to be a book review and not a summary of my life.  So back to the book.

After reading the first book (or watching the first season), we know that Martin is not shy about killing off characters and he does a great job of creating characters you want to see die.  (Unfortunately, these are not the ones guaranteed to be murdered by the book’s end.)  Another thing he does well is to create complex characters who are flawed making even the most likable ones occasionally unlikable.  Nonetheless, I have to say that Tyrion Lannaster is still a favorite and even more likable in the books than he is on the television show.  I know it’s difficult to imagine.  You’ll either have to take my word for it or read the books.

The most remarkable thing I noticed in reading this book (finally) is how much the television series departs from the novel itself.  I really don’t want to compare the two but I must commend the television series writers for how effectively they manage to condense content to keep the story moving along.  This is not to suggest that Martin doesn’t do a masterful job of pacing his novels.  I prefer having more details, more characters, and more content.  But what works on the page doesn’t always translate to the screen and some of the changes simply make sense.

Some.  Not all.  I do not understand why Jojen and Meera were not introduced sooner.  I think their role in Bran’s development is fascinating.  I was thrilled to learn more about them from having read the second book.  So much so that I’ve been looking over at the fourth book in the series.  I remind myself to resist the temptation because I know how frustrating it can be to wait for a series to finish being published.  Do I want to put myself through that again?  No.  Not really.  This is why I said I would read the books from the previous season and relive the experience that way.  But I blew it.  I read book three, and I can’t say how much longer I can hold out on book 4. 

Another plot line that I feel was not allowed its full due was Daenerys Targaryen’s story.  Yes, I know I said that her story is the least interesting because it is so narrowly focused on her goal of regaining the Iron Throne.  There are things that occur in this novel that really are relevant beyond the scope of the novels.  She, as an archetype of the hero, is going through the traditional path of being separated from her home (predates the first book), called to a higher purpose (second book), and the descent into hell/death (this book).  Although it is somewhat present in the show, it is diminished to such a degree as to lose much of its bite.  (One might suggest that the very reason her story is so predictable is rooted as much in the single-mindedness of her quest as her following a familiar mythic path.)
Having finished the second book, after reading the first and third (insert eye-roll here), I am resisting the temptation to read the fourth book.  This is easier said than done.  Given Martin’s skill at taking a despicable character and making him/her sympathetic, taking a well-lover character and revealing some character flaw, I simply want to know what is going to happen next.  Only “next” is two books away from being finished and even if I read books 5 and 4, I’ll be waiting a while.   

Monday, June 17, 2013

Tiny Book of Tiny Stories Volumes 1 & 2 edited by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Tiny Book of Tiny Stories: Volume 1 edited by Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a collaborative collection of simple drawings paired with a few short sentences, occasionally even only one, that, together, tell a story.  Some are quirky, strange, even amusing.  The surprises are in the ones that are actually profound or evocative or even manage to be both.  This magic happens most when the combination of image and words is so perfectly matched, the reader can’t help but pause and ponder the moment.

And it only takes a moment to read any of these so-called tiny stories.  But they can be like koans, inviting the reader to meditate on what the image means and how the words either enhance or even change the meaning.  Or how the image completes the meaning in the words. 

Some of the best stories don’t end there, however.  Perhaps it is the very nature of something as condensed as these tiny stories would invite someone like me to imagine more about the characters, about the moments that led up to the story, as well as the ones that followed. 

I can’t say that I loved everything I saw or read but I found the experience of reading the collection an overall delight.  Perhaps the spirit behind putting together something collaboratively touched me on some visceral level.  I know that more than a few of the stories touched or provoked something in me, forcing me to stop reading, to set the book aside for a while, and just linger with the tiny story. 

I can think of no higher compliment.  Or perhaps it is a higher compliment that I immediately started reading Tiny Book of Tiny Stories: Volume 2 which I enjoyed even more!

Friday, June 7, 2013

Shocked by Patricia Volk

Shocked:  My Mother, Schiaparelli, and Me by Patricia Volk is a memoir told in snapshots, comparing and contrasting the memoirist’s mother’s life with her own and with that of Elsa Schiaparelli.  The connection between the author, her mother, and the iconic fashion designer is explained early in the book when Volk describes how she read Schiaparelli’s autobiography and realized, for the first time, that her mother’s way of living life, the rules by which she defined happiness and behavior, may not be the only way of existing in a complicated world. 

I should confess now that my appreciation of this memoir is highly subjective.  Volk describes a life that is different from my own but familiar.  She talks about walking from her upper west side apartment to the Woolworth’s on Broadway, the same one I lived near in my preadolescence.  She talks about a Manhattan I vaguely remember.  Women wearing gloves and furs.  Men in jackets.  Ladies who lunch.  Pearl necklaces and brooches.  I remember these things, peering into the display cases with the pearl gloves and pillbox hats.  However, I find Volk’s mother’s ideas about how a lady behaves beyond my purview.  Volk’s mother has a very precise understanding of what a girl should be and where she would find her happiness.  “A lady doesn’t raise her voice or wear white after Labor Day.”  That sort of thing. 

Mothers teach their daughters what they know and, when a daughter cannot or will not conform, there is bound to be conflict within this primary relationship.  For Volk, the catalyst for this conflict lies in her realizing that there is more than one way of being, something different from what her grandmother, mother, aunts, and her mother’s friends define as essential for a happy life.  And it is through Elsa Schiaparelli’s story, Patricia Volk finds a promise of writing her own life story separate from the one her mother would have her write for herself. 

I honestly enjoyed getting inside a life and lifestyle so unlike my own.  Volk manages to be honest about her relationship with her mother without vilifying.  Her mother is not an easy woman to understand or like but, somehow, you can’t help but appreciate her, recognizing that she was as much a victim of her circumstances.  Volk’s mother grew up in an era where some few women became doctors or lawyers but were not considered successful unless they had a husband and children.  And even then, their professional accomplishments were never as important as ensuring the husband was content.  So is it any wonder that this woman became a homemaker and sublimated her aspirations to be a helpmeet to her husband?  And is it a surprise that Volk would find inspiration in Schiaparelli, who refused to conform to anything?  I mean, think about it:  How many fashion designers know nothing about how to sew?  Schiaparelli was scandalous and her daring juxtaposes against the life Volk witnessed with her mother.   

While the choices both women make are highlighted, the author never defines what is the better path.  She clearly recognizes that there is no one right answer.  Rather, Volk evokes a quiet feminist truth—that power comes from choice and that women deserve to have the power to choose how they will define themselves and how they will live their lives.

Not profound.  Not overflowing with pathos.  Honest.  Gentle.  And when you finish reading, it feels like maybe you’ve made a friend.  Maybe not with Volk’s mother or Schiaparelli or even the author.  But some woman out there who didn’t embrace the same life as one’s self, knowing that’s okay, and that’s why you can both learn a lot from how someone else chooses to be.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Power Verbs for Job Seekers by Michael Lawrence Faulkner

Power Verbs for Job Seekers: Hundreds of Verbs and Phrases to Bring Your Résumés, Cover Letters, and Job Interviews to Life by Michael Lawrence Faulkner with Michelle Faulkner-Lunsford is, on the surface, merely a collection of words that the job seeker can use to "attract employers like moths to flame." Or so says the back cover. What makes this book so useful is how the verbs are organized.

I don't know about you but I have little to no problem defining and describing my hard skills. How quickly I type. The degrees and certifications I carry. The accomplishments I have made throughout my professional career. It's the soft skills I find more difficult to define. And if I can't define them, I surely can't put them into words, can I?

This is where this book comes in and where it excels, because the bulk of the content focuses on soft skills, those vague but essential qualities for which hiring managers are looking. Faulkner also explains how to make best use of bullet points, something I've seen used poorly even on examples of how they should be used for résumés. Because there are so many soft skills, the authors take the time to further break them down by category: accountability, accuracy and preciseness, et al. There are a plethora of choices and it would be easy to modify a résumé or cover letter to suit the job to which you are applying by simply substituting one strength over another. Some skills may be more necessary to fulfill one role, and for those who are seeking a job in a transition or lateral market, being able to create a résumé that hits the points for more than one type of job position without having to completely revise the entire document is essential.

If you want to get noticed, you have to stand out. If you want to stand out, your soft skills are the ones that will get your foot in the door. If you struggle with defining those soft skills, this book is a great place to start.
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