Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Hotel Tito

Finished January 10
The Hotel Tito by Ivana Bodrožić, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać

This novel closely follows the author's real life experiences. It follows an unnamed young girl for several years, beginning in 1991 when she is 9 years old and is sent from her home town of Vukovar to the seaside with her older brother. Their mother later joins them there. She doesn't really understand what's going on at first, but gradually realizes that her father has gone missing defending the town. As the two children and their mother go to Zagreb to wait for word of her father, they are housed in a former political school along with many other war refugees. Some have fathers who break through and arrive in Zagreb. Some learn that their fathers have died. But many are in the limbo that faces her family. Her mother and her brother fight for housing, for recognition, and the girl gets older, becomes a bit of a rebel, engaging in riskier behaviour along with other kids her age. The book takes us to her high school years, where she is forced to live in a boarding house as their is no high school near where the political school is located.
This is about how the war affected her, but we see the effect on the society around her as well. The feelings of those Croatians not directly affected by the events of Vukovar.
Interestingly, I visited Vukovar myself in 2010, after the town had begun to be resettled. It was still showing the signs of the war at that time.

The picture about is just one scene showing nature taking over the damaged buildings of the town.
There were many signs of death and of life coming back.

A Whole Life

Finished January 8
A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, translated by Charlotte Collins

This short novel the man Andreas Egger from childhood through his life. Andreas came to the village in the Austrian alps in 1902 as a small boy. His mother was dying and sent him to live with his uncle Hubert Kranzstocker, who only took him in reluctantly. One of the regular beatings from his uncle resulted in a badly broken leg that didn't set properly. He was a quiet boy, who worked hard. When he turned eighteen and finally rebelled from his uncle's punishments, he left the farm and began to pick up work from others around the village. He grew up to be a strong man, mostly silent, but honest and dependable. The story of his life takes us through happiness and sorrow, war and peace, love and loss.  The mountains he lives among play a big role in his life. This is a story of a man who accepted what life brought him, but took opportunities as they came. He's a man that one can empathize with. An everyman of a sort.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Say My Name

Finished January 7
Say My Name by Allegra Huston

This novel takes us into the life of Eve, a forty-eight year old woman. Eve is married to Larry, with a grown son, Allen. Some time ago, Larry moved into the spare room, soon after being enlightened about his life. The marriage has never been a close one. Eve obstensibly has a career as a garden designer, but she really treats it more as a hobby. On most weekends she travels around secondhand shops buying items for her friend Deborah's antique shop. As the book begins, she has spied a musical instrument in a case in a shop in the north end of New York City. Despite the bad condition of the instrument, she cannot help herself.
Later, when she goes downtown to the library to research its origins, she encounters Robert the college roommate of her brother Bill, and his son Micajah, a musician. She is surprised when Micajah flirts with her, and even more surprised when he follows up with an email asking to meet.
The next meeting ignites something in Eve that she has never felt before, not even in the early days of her marriage, and she finds herself struggling not to continue the relationship.
When Larry makes an unexpected choice, Eve finds herself surprised and must start to figure out what she really wants. Eve has always been scared of taking risks, but now she finds herself freed to try new things.
This is a novel of passion, and novel of self-renewal.

We Should All Be Feminists

Finished January 5
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This short book came out of a TED talk Adichie gave. Adichie uses her own experiences both in Nigeria and elsewhere to show how the way men and women are treated is still not fair for women. She gives examples from her life and from the experiences of others and shows that the attitudes stem from the way we are taught beginning as young children. For things to change, we must not only bring up girls differently, but also boys. We need to reexamine how the things we do as a matter of habit keep these differences alive. She shows how just being aware can help move us further down the road. She gives examples of how men can question other men's actions to change things, to bring that awareness to others.
This is a book that everyone should read, and I also recommend her TED talk.

Fin & Lady

Finished January 4
Fin & Lady by Cathleen Schine, read by Anne Twomey

This enchanting novel tells the story of young Fin Hadley and his older half-sister Lady. As the book begins Fin is eleven years old and has just lost his mother to cancer. He has already lost his father and both his maternal grandparents. Now Lady comes into his life as his guardian and companion. Fin had met Lady when he was five, after their father had taken Fin and his mother Lydia on a trip to Europe to hunt down the elusive Lady. They had finally found her on Capri, and Fin was enchanted by her at the time, and on the boat trip back to the U.S.
Now Fin and his collie dog Gus go to New York City with Lady to live. At first they live in her late mother's apartment which is well-managed by the black housekeeper Mabel. Mabel is the grounding influence in the home, especially when they move to a newly renovated brownstone in Greenwich Village.
Fin discovers that Lady is well-meaning, but not necessarily dependable in an everyday way. She is a bit of a misfit and a rebel, even for the early '60s when this story begins. Fin soon discovers that he has another guardian, a financial one, represented by the young Tyler, a lawyer for Fin and Lady's father's law firm. He manages Fin's inheritance including the farm and cows that were his grandparents'. Tyler also has a history with Lady that Fin doesn't learn of right away. What he does learn is that Lady has the ability to enchant, and not just Fin. Lady seems to draw people to her, and she has many suitors. In a moment of togetherness, Lady assigns Fin the job of finding her a husband among these many, and set a deadline a year away.
We soon see there are three men who seem closer to success in terms of suitors, and Lady seems to rotate from one to another as time goes on. They are Tyler, the long-term suitor; Jack, the younger man, a sportsman who gets off to a bad start with Fin; and Biffy, a Hungarian emigrant and World War II survivor. Biffy is the favourite of Fin, and we even get to meet his eccentric mother, who is a darling.
As the years go by, and the deadline for Fin's task gets moved further out, he finds a life in the city. He befriends an older girl Phoebe, who lives across the street; attends a non-traditional school; explores museums, galleries, parks, and becomes a baseball fan of the Mets. During these years, Lady lives a life in limbo, not really advancing, just treading water. It is a pleasant life, but Fin can see that Lady isn't truly happy.
When, in a moment he regrets, Fin tells her what he truly thinks, Lady sets off on a new adventure. She ends up in Capri again, and the story changes. Lady changes, and Fin sees how. When even more change begins to come into their lives, Fin knows that he needs help, and his true friends come through.
This is a story of two siblings, who become friends. A fairy-tale type story with an ending both unexpected and inevitable. I loved it.

Smarter Faster Better

Finished January 4
Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

I loved this book just as much as his previous The Power of Habit. Here, Duhigg looks at productivity. As Duhigg describes in his introduction, this book began with him asking a prolific author he admired, Atul Gawande, about his productivity. When he learned that Atul was busy with his family, Duhigg realized that he hadn't taken time off in months, and that there was a lot he could learn about productivity. Thus came the germ of the idea for this book. As usual, Duhigg interviewed people in many professions and successful project teams. He was looking for concepts that repeated across these diverse groups. He found eight ideas and a powerful principle that connected them.
That principle is one of making choices in certain ways. He shows how many of us have spent too much time looking at the tools of productivity, gadgets and apps and systems, rather than drawing lessons from these tools.
The chapters here examine each of those eight ideas in succession, starting with motivation. Duhigg looked a medical cases of people who had lost their motivation, at behavioural studies looking at the role of having choice, and at the way our society has changed from one where the majority of people reported to a supervisor to one where more people have the ability to make their own choices about setting goals, prioritizing activities, and choosing projects. This led him to look at the skill of self-motivation, something the military refers to as a bias to action.
The second chapter looks at teams, from study teams at universities to more goal oriented school teams such as case competition teams and work teams at organizations like Google. One study showed the importance of group norms in a team's success. Another found a correlation between psychological safety in a team and the team's success. Productivity is about how teams work rather than who is one them.
The third chapter looks at focus. Duhigg looks at instances where failure to pay attention, to remain focused while still being aware of the larger situation, caused larger failures, including fatal ones. He shows how reliance on technology, such as automated functions, GPS navigation, and . He points out the dangers of cognitive tunneling, where one becomes overly focused on one thing, even as other things are going on around them. Another study looked at why some people stay calm and focused in a tense situation and others don't. Another looked at the role of mental models, and the way some people tell stories to themselves about the way the world around us works. Both these things help when something is out of place or doesn't look right. The dangers of information overload can cause confusion and irrational actions. Too much information coming at once can make one unsure what to focus on.
The fourth chapter looks at goal setting. In one example Duhigg looks at the need for cognitive closure, and how a high need for closure can create negative situations. It creates a need to be decisive and act in a confident manner, and can lead to premature decision-making. He looks at the rise in the use of SMART goals in the workplace. The use of this type of goal setting is useful, but if those setting goals get too focused on the tool and lose sight of whether the goal described was meaningful, meeting goals isn't productive. He looks at stretch goals and how they can lead to new ways of thinking about problems and processes. Combining SMART goals and stretch goals can take the positives of both.
The fifth chapter looks at managing others. Duhigg looks at a number of factors: respect, trust, listening, and acknowledging expertise. One study looked at corporate culture in companies. They found five types of corporate culture: star model; engineering model, bureaucratic model, autocratic model, and commitment model. They found commitment model firms were the most successful overall. This was due to the sense of trust that developed. Distribution of authority means that more people feel they can make a difference, and thus they care more. Empowerment leads to commitment.
The sixth chapter looks at decision making, from analyzing the decisions of a tournament winning poker player to looking at a study that aimed to make everyday people better at forecasting the future. Duhigg looks at how experience makes us better at forecasting, and how varied experiences increase our success. He describes how experiencing and knowing about failure increases our success as well.
The seventh chapter looks at innovation, from the team creating the Disney movie Frozen to the making of West Side Story. Duhigg looks at a study of the tactic of taking proven ideas from other settings and combining them in new ways. It's about making the creative process welcome in your environment.
The last of the eight ideas is that of absorbing data. In our world today, there is a plethora of information, but to turn that information into useful knowledge is the key. Because of the vast amounts of data available to us now, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the data and not take it and use it to our advantage. Duhigg looks at information blindness, a study of debt collection teams' success rates, a school that started thinking about the data they collected and putting it together in different ways, and the teaching of a engineering decision process to struggling students. He also looked at a study showing the importance of frames as context, and thus the importance of being able to reframe a question to look at it differently.
I loved the use of real life situations to show these ideas and how they are important for success. I also loved the appendix provided that showed how to use these ideas in my own life to increase my productivity. A great read.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

The Adventures of Slim and Howdy

Finished January 3
The Adventures of Slim and Howdy by Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn with Bill Fitzhugh

This humorous modern western is a hoot to read. I pulled out this one when I realized that I hadn't read a single western last year. Instead of wandering gunslingers we have wandering musicians, not that they can't handle a gun when it becomes necessary. The two men Slim and Howdy meet by chance at a used car lot in eastern Texas. They don't have much money, but they have imagination and the ability to turn life experiences into songs. Howdy is heading away from Louisiana with his well-used truck, a saddle in the back and his guitar in the front. Slim is driving an ailing car and needs enough money to get to his nearby destination. The used car lot owner, Red is trying to bargain them against each other, so they decide to team up. They sell Slim's car, decide to share the ownership of the truck and split the money from the car sale.
On to Slim's destination, which is the home of the man who has stolen his guitar. Howdy's quick actions come in handy, and the retrieval is successful, but they've created an enemy and now have a couple of followers.
As their tale leads them down to Fort Worth, and then on to Del Rio, they find themselves in dicey situations from crooked card sharks to jealous ex-boyfriends. The characters are fun, the songwriting even more fun, and the adventures never stop.
Written by the real-life music duo Brooks and Dunn, and a helpful novelist, this book is a great read. I loved it and would love to follow Slim and Howdy on their future adventures.