Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Books Like Whoa: Books of the Plane (Volume 10)

Y'all. Last week in the airports was... rough. Long. Maddening. I will go into more details at a later date, but suffice it to say that I had an abundance of time to observe what my fellow, equally miserable travelers were reading. And they were reading a lot! It restored my faith in humanity a little bit after my encounters with the evil and rude airlines. So without further ado...

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (older woman in a paisley sweater set)

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (little girl with 2 very dark braids and a plaid skirt)

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (sporty looking soccer mom type with an orange backpack)

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson (very fragile looking grandma with bottlecap glasses)

The Rembrandt Affair by Daniel Silva (business guy waiting in the Premier Access lane, wearing a suit)

Chasing Harry Winston by Lauren Weisberger (a young woman with blond hair in a ski outfit)

Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (young blonde business guy with an Elvis-esque hairstyle)

Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout (hipster guy in his mid-thirties with a red beard and Buddy Holly glasses)

The Winter Journey by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles (an impossible old man in a wheelchair)

Monday, July 30, 2012

Books Like Whoa: Imagine by Jonah Lehrer

Okay, okay, I know I said it would be another week, but I couldn't resist. Trying to get your creative juices flowing? Just imagine... (See update below)

by Jonah Lehrer 

Procured from my favorite local bookstore, One More Page

Procured in May 2012

Finished on June 23, 2012

Format: Hardback with a very groovy cover - reminds me of an eye chart

Why I gave it a try: My work was sponsoring a book club and this was one of the choices... he's a contributor to RadioLab which I love, so I was curious as to what kind of a pop science author he would be

Summary: How does creativity work? What is the creative process like? Is it the same for all people? How is creativity fostered in an organization? These are the questions that Lehrer tackles in his latest pop neuroscience tome, exploring the latest research and real life examples.

Thoughts: This is a tricky book to talk about because on the face of it, it completely fails to do what it tells you it's going to do. It tells you that it's a book about neuroscience and creativity. The truth of the matter is that there is just not enough data at this point to make very persuasive statements about the neuroscience of creativity. I had a vague, undefined sense of the lack of hard data or conclusions as I read, which were crystallized upon reading the thoughtful assessment that The Millions ran a few weeks ago. Interestingly, I think The Power of Habit accomplishes much more successfully what Lehrer states as his mission - using neuroscience to talk about every day life. The Power of Habit does not explicitly position itself as a study of habit that is infused with a lot of hard data about brain - in other words, a pop neuroscience book. However, that's pretty much exactly what it is. Imagine, however, does explicitly position itself this way and thus sets itself up to fail on some level. There's simply not enough solid, thoroughly tested research on this area of neuroscience to be able to meaningfully talk about it for an entire book. So in terms of meeting it's fundamental promise, this book does not deliver.

That being said, I found the book to be a very engaging case compilation of how various individuals and organizations approach creativity. "Imagination" and "creativity" have an innately ineffable quality to them and by having a number of perspectives presented on the topic, Lehrer does manage to paint a kind of impressionistic portrait of what these words mean. Each entity presents it's own circle in a Venn diagram and by looking at the points of overlap, we do walk away with a more concrete idea of how we might encourage the muses to inspire our own lives.

The biggest take away for me was something born out in my own work experiences, which is that while brainstorming encourages more group-think than creativity, there is tremendous value in allowing ideas to be put to test in a group environment. Especially as seen from the folks at Pixar, we get to see how important it is to let ideas be critiqued and poked at thoroughly, in the hopes that whatever emerges at the other end will be better than what one person could create by themselves. This creates a somewhat antagonistic environment (as opposed to a consensus atmosphere in a brainstorming session), but as long as everyone understands the ground rules and treats each other with respect, this approach can produce much better ideas than any one person could.

Overall, I found the book to be thought provoking and enjoyable, though as I said, if you are looking for a solid science book, this is probably not for you.


So since I posted this review on 7/30, the mess has hit the fan for old Jonah Lehrer - the same day, as a matter of fact. I guess I was just clairvoyant on the timing. Tablet magazine uncovered that Lehrer had outright made up quotations from Bob Dylan in the early chapters of the books- the ultimate journalistic no-no. On top of the "self-plagiarism" allegations that emerged about a month ago (which I chose not to mention in my original assessment, in an effort to give Lehrer the benefit of the doubt), Lehrer's reputation is pretty much in shambles at this point - his publisher's have even pulled the book from stores, making my links below moot.

What do we say about an author who has so clearly gone astray? Well, probably a lot of the same things that Oprah said to James Fry. Or Ira Glass said to Mike Daisy (BTW - there is no force more terrifying than the terrible fury of an Ira Glass spurned).

People mess up - they want to make a grand point and instead of doing the hard work that sticking to the facts often requires. What's sad in all of the cases I mentioned is that by adding some simple clarifications, these storytellers could have more or less made the same point without having their message undermined. Imagine is no less a thought provoking book for not having those Dylan quotes. That makes Lehrer's decision to lie all the more sad.


4 - I enjoyed it... a solid offering 

Barnes & Noble

Sunday, July 29, 2012

See You Next Week

So cut to a crazy couple of weeks of packing, moving, changing insurance, trying to figure out what to give to Goodwill, etc., etc. Basically, I've been totally drained and as this is my last week of work, I will continue to be distracted for one more week. I'll see you at the other side - lots of good books to share ;).

See you next week!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Books Like Whoa: Books of the Planes (Volume 9)

Lots of books on the planes the last few weeks... though sadly, many of them were written by E.L. James. A lot were also written by George R. R. Martin and Suzanne Collins. But here's a sampling...

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (a flight attendant with a dark bun and purple lipstick

A Concise History of Hungary by Miklos Molnar  (a man in a fisher man's hat with a flannel shirt, highlighting furiously)

Fifty Shades Darker by E.L. James (a young woman in a silk shirt and pencil skirt complaining that her friend had not bought her an expensive enough bachelorette party gift)

Persuasive Business Proposals by Tom Sant (middle aged woman in business suit with a severe middle part in her blond bob)

Monday, July 16, 2012

On Summer Laziness

The French call it ennui, I call it the muddles. Either way, I'm in that lazy state of summer lolligagging that is making all non-essential activity near impossible. A combination of factors have converged to form this state. First, in the words of the Real Housewives of New Jersey, it's hot as balls. Seriously. It's been so hot this summer that the idea of exerting an extra iota of effort feels like a Herculean task that we mortals should not be expected to accomplish. Plus, my bedroom is in the attic of an old house, which means the air circulation is low and subsequently, the Frankie cooling off ratio is low (cooled off-ness/amount of air circulating, for those running the numbers).

Plus... well, to be honest, I think I'm just feeling overwhelmed. There's a lot that needs to happen for me to move my life from DC to Tennessee, and then from Tennessee to Vancouver. Turns out that these things take a lot of planning and general mental effort.  Added to that the fact that work has somehow managed to become more intense since I quit (shouldn't I be taking it easy by now?) and the plain old guilt I have that I won't be able to spend the kind of time I want with my DC friends before I leave, and the general BS that comes with turning a quarter century and wondering what the hizz-eck you are doing with your life, and you have a very frazzled Frankie.

It's at these times that I realize how important it is to have routine and stability - the things that keep you moored in a churning sea of your own making. Things like blogging, reading, and prayer can be seen as narcissistic, to be sure, but I find that the routine of these pleasures are worthwhile docks for me. It's not hard for me to feel like a ship passing in the night with my own life, so it's actually important for me to make time to do the little things that keep me grounded. I think I mistakenly associate summer with "not having to do anything." The implication of having to do something is that it's a slog or punishment. But you know what? If I neglect things that I "have to do," it ends up making me feel crappy. So yeah, I "have to" read. But I love reading and it helps keep me sane. So even if I'm feeling lazy, I'm learning that I need to make time to do the things that make me feel like myself.

Anyways, hopefully I'll be back to regular posting this week. Because I have to.

What routines do you find hard to maintain during summer months?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

On Being a Fireworks Debbie Downer

Okay, sorry, I'm writing this as I'm trying to get some sleep before I have to wake up at 4:30 to get on a plane for work. This background is inevitably coloring my post, but bear with me, because my sentiments are long standing.

I really don't give a flying flip about fireworks. Or the 4th of July for that matter. I don't really understand what all the hubbub is about. 

To be fair, there is some general antagonistic feelings on my part because my birthday is so close to the holiday and it invariably ruined whatever party plans my parents hatched as a child (in fact, if two slow poke signers had actually made it to the meeting on time, my birthday would be Independence Day). 

But aside from my misgivings, I deeply resent this holiday for one simple reason: fireworks are a wasteful annoyance to anyone in a one mile radius. Why do people get so excited about them? This is a genuine puzzlement to me. If you have seen one or two decent fireworks displays, you've really seen most of what there is to see in the way of fireworks. Yet people flip their lids over these pyrotechnic displays year after year. Why? They are pretty enough, but it's ridiculously expensive to put on a 30 minute display.

Then there's the practical consideration for those who are shooting these off in neighborhoods. I'm sorry, but it's really just one of the rudest things you can possibly do. To set off fireworks outside of someone else's house is basically flipping them the bird and saying, "I don't care if you have kids who are in bed, or if you need to get up early for work tomorrow morning, or even if you simply don't want to feel like you're in Beirut every time one of my colorful bombs shakes your house. I don't care if one of my fiery rockets accidentally sets your home ablaze. My enjoyment of shiny light shows is more important than being a considerate neighbor."

Again, I'm cranky about this since I am one of those party-poopers who has to get up at 4:30am to go to work the day after the 4th. I got in bed at 9 and was actually managing to drift off when my neighbor started setting fireworks off at 9:30 in the cul de sac in front of the house. My entire bed is shaking like a train car every time they set one off. They make all kinds of booms and whirly noises and screams, and if I was a veteran with PTSD, I would be triggered right now, because it seriously sounds like my parents' home is taking fire. 

Anyways, sounds like they are finally winding down their hour long display, so I'll try to mellow out again and squeeze in a couple hours of sleep before I have to wake up. 

But seriously, can someone explain why this is an acceptable celebratory pass time?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Books Like Whoa: America's Birthday Edition

Happy America's Birthday to you! (okay technically early, whatevs). In anticipation of this joyous event, the Huffpo has posted the 88 books that shaped America, Interesting list - how many have you read?

But to me there's only a couple of books that I think of when I'm thinking about books that are definitively American.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair encapsulates two great American traditions - the immigrant experience and the "soapbox" expository journalism. I remember weeping when I read this for AP History because you just keep thinking, "Damn. Can't a Lithuanian catch a break?" Poor Jurgis is subject to all the ills of the foreigner's experience in a new homeland and though this book is remembered more for the muck-racking aspect of exposing the meat packing industry, it is at it's heart a story of one man trying to make a life for himself in the midwest. In an age of increasingly vicious rhetoric about modern immigration issues, we'd all be well served to give this a reread and remember that we are a nation of immigrants.

The other is, of course, that high school English favorite: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Aside from the raptures of breaking down the individual color symbolism and the oblique references to Thomas Jefferson's agrarian ideal, this is the definitive, "The American Dream is dead" novel. Or is it? That's kind of the point. I think there is room for idealists and pessimists alike in this American treasure, and what with the latest cinematic adaption coming down the pike this year, now is the right time for a reread. The folks at Book Riot are sponsoring a read along and if you've never had the pleasure of reading this book, you need to do it. Now. I'll wait...

What makes a novel definitively American?