Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A Place We Knew Well

Title:  A Place We Knew Well
Author:  Susan Carol McCarthy
Publication Information:  Bantam. 2015. 272 pages.
ISBN:  080417654X / 978-0804176545

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "As I wheel right into Dad's driveway, a six-foot chain-link fence jumps up out of nowhere."

Favorite Quote:  "The old saying 'Be careful what you wish for' ought to be revised; it out to say instead: 'Be careful what you take for granted.'"

For thirteen days, the threat of nuclear war came close to being an actual, fought war. In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis, as it is now known, brought the threat of Russian nuclear forces as close to US soil as Cuba and brought US missiles Turkey, close to Russian soil. The Cold War heated up, as both sides appeared to be in a stand off. Would weapons be fired? Would anyone survive? Those around the country saw this happen on their television screens. Those in Florida watched it take place before their very eyes.

This is the history into which Susan Carol McCarthy sets the Avery family. Wes Avery, a veteran of World War II and the bombing of Hiroshima, understands the meaning behind the military movements and buildup. His wife Sarah is seemingly caught up in the civilian preparations of bomb shelters and emergency supplies but underneath is just overwhelmed by her own past and her life. Their daughter, Charlotte, a teenager, is torn between the high school years of friends, football games, and homecoming and the looming menace that suggests that the future she dreams of may never be. This is the human story of this book.

The book proceeds along both stories - the nonfiction story of the missile crisis and the fictional drama of the Avery family. Not having read too much set in the 1960s, I enjoy the historical element of the book. The book includes descriptions of some of the military maneuverings and actual events; it doesn't turn into a history book but definitely provides a lot of background.

Through the Avery family and the small town they live in, the author does a wonderful job of capturing the fears and emotions of the time and gives life to the history. Through the character of Emilio, the Cuban young man working for Wes, the book even brings in the other side of the human story of war. Emilio is a teenager like Charlotte and has witnessed atrocities in his homeland and been pulled away from friends and family for the sake of safety. Wes gives him a job, and his colleague Steve takes on the role of a father figure. Yet, Emilio fears for and longs for home and family.

The fictional story keeps pace with the history; it starts gradually, builds into a crisis I did not see coming and then ends rather calmly for all the buildup. The plot twist does surprise me and takes this a book beyond the historical fiction. It becomes a book about losses, sorrows, and a question. "How do you grieve a dream? And for how long?" The history is interesting, but it is this question that grounds the book. I feel sympathetic towards each of the characters - Wes, Sarah, Charlotte, Emilio and even Steve. I care about them.

A quiet, negotiated agreement ended the Cuban Missile Crisis, fortunately without a shot being fired. So, it is with the story of the Avery family. It starts slow, reaches a crisis, and just seems to fade. Perhaps, it is because the book ends on a note of the history rather than the personal story. I suppose I would prefer to end with the Avery family themselves rather than their presence at a place in history that they knew well.

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*** BLOG TOUR - Welcome Susan Carol McCarthy! ***

From the Desk of Susan Carol McCarthy...The Writing Process...

I guess my “writing process” is a holdover from when my two sons were young and my writing time was bookended by school drop offs and pickups. I was then, and still am, a morning person, which by default makes me a morning writer. These days, I brew strong coffee and attempt, by the end of the first cup, to have conquered the daily Sudoku in The LA Times. I carry my second cup to my desk and check emails, answering only those that can’t wait till the afternoon. Then I write, sometimes well, sometimes not, for three to four hours every day. What’s important—I know this from years of experiment and experience—is keeping my butt in the chair and my fingers moving on the keyboard till the good stuff shows up. Early or late, it eventually shows up. I break for lunch, always, and then edit afterward in the afternoon. I should probably cop to the fact that my morning process often begins the night before when, head on my pillow, I send a message to my subconscious about what I hope and need to accomplish writing-wise the next day, and I ask for any assistance available. More often than not, the answer is there when I wake up. I’m not always writing historical fiction, by the way. I also do a fair amount of commercial freelance writing, too. Gotta pay the bills between pub dates, you know? Alas.

Please share your thoughts & leave a comment. Susan McCarthy and I would love to "talk" to you.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good

Title:  Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good
Author:  Kathleen Flinn
Publication Information:  Penguin Books. 2014 (original). 288 pages.
ISBN:  0143127691 / 978-0143127697

Book Source:  I received this book through the GoodReads First Reads program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I'm Swedish, which makes me sexy, and I'm Irish, which makes me want to talk about it"

Favorite Quote:  "I am my father, my mother, my brothers, my sister, my aunts, my uncles, and my grandparents, even the ones I never met."

"Burnt toast makes you sing good." That sounds like something my grandmother would say; it's similar to other family sayings that have been passed down to me and that I pass on to my children. The title and cover of the book evokes a smile for sweet memories of my own family. It immediately draws me in, and I want to know more.

Kathleen Flinn comes from a large family. She is one of five siblings. Her father was one of eight siblings, and her mother was one of five. As such, the book has a lot of characters. At times, it is challenging to keep up with the characters. The book include two family trees. One include her grandparents, all their offspring, and Kathleen Flinn's siblings. The other ends shows Kathleen Flinn with her parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. The family trees help, but the two family trees flip the sides of the family. In one, her father's side of the family is on the right, and on the other, it is her mother's side. Admittedly, that is a small thing, but it adds a bit to the challenge of managing all the names and the relationships. This is Kathleen Flinn's third memoir; it is the first one I have read. I wonder if I need the background of the other two books to know the characters better in this one.

The second half of this book appears much more chronological, following the author's immediate family. As such, it is easier to follow the characters. This section is also the more personal and more emotional part of the book. That is likely because this is the history she herself experiences.

The first half seems more anecdotal, filling in the family stories that she finds critical to her history. The stories of the first half can almost be read independently as small, contained views into the lives of this family. These are the stories that have been passed down to her. They do trigger the interesting question of if you were to tell your family history, what stories would be included and why? Out of generations of family and scores of stories, which ones do you remember and which ones do you tell generation to generation? How do you choose? For this book, the tie in is the food references.

The book is a "memoir with recipes", but it is not really a foodie book. The recipes and the foods are tied in to the author's memories, for as she says, "... I had not lost the flavors of my childhood, not the lessons that he left me. When everything else seemed so unsalted, the simple act of cooking saved me somehow." As such, the book is not really about the recipes included but about the stories behind them.

Because the focus is on the family story, I do wish that either her personal story had come first or that the anecdotes of family history were woven into the immediate story.  That is the story I laugh and cry with for it is an emotional life being lived and not a story being told.

Like the jam on the cover, this book is sweet. The stories and recipes are not particularly memorable, but it is nevertheless a sweet story of family, of the immigrant experience, and of the ability of our senses to trigger a memory.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)

Title:  Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)
Author:  Jerome K. Jerome
Publication Information:  J. W. Arrowsmith (original). 1889 (original). 268 pages.
ISBN:  0765341611 / 978-0765341617

Book Source:  I read this book for a book club my friend just asked me to join.

Opening Sentence:  "There were four of us - George, and William Samuel Harris, and myself, and Montmorency."

Favorite Quote:  "It seems to be the rule of this world. each person has what he doesn't want, and other people have what he does want ... It does not do well to dwell on these things; it makes one so sad."

George, Harris, and J (the narrator) are the three men. Montmorency is the dog. It took me a while to get that straight; so, I want to make that clear going in. Montmorency is the dog.

Three friends take a boat trip down the Thames River as a vacation. Along the way, the run into various escapades, and the narrator goes off on a variety of tangents and stories - somewhat unrelated, somewhat random, but always entertaining. The tangents and stories describe a little bit of everything from the business life in London, the imagined medical ailments of the three friends, the role and view of women in society, to the pompous nature of the narrator.

The preface of the book states "Its pages form the record of events that really happened. All that has been done is to colour them..." Indeed, three friends did exist. J, the author Jerome K Jerome, tried his hand at many careers including the railroad and the theater. George Wingrave was a bank clerk, who went on to become a leader at Barclay Bank. Carl Hentschel, known in the book as Harris, went on to establish a London printing house. The three were friends, and they did travel together, including taking trips up and down the Thames.

The route down (or up?) the Thames that the men took exists. Many, if not all, the places referenced in the book still exist. You could, if you wanted, recreate this trip even today. According to Jerome K Jerome's biography, a trip down the Thames was also the choice for his honeymoon trip in 1888, shortly before this book was written and published.

Although the setting and the characters could not be any more different, the book in many ways reminds me of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Both books are about nothing and everything. Both have a set of oddball characters going from situation to situation. Both are over-the-top absurd and laugh out loud funny at times. Underlying both is a hint of seriousness and commentary about society.

Like The Hitchhiker's Guide, this book is fascinating in its longevity and its variations. Today, over 125 years after its initial publication, I find myself laughing over the characters and situations. Many people, it appears, agree with me. This book has its loyal following:

  • A Jerome K Jerome Society exists.
  • Many audiobook versions of the book have been released over the years with different narrators.
  • The book has been the basis of several movies and TV series.
  • Artwork has been created to commemorate the book and the characters.
  • Other books have referenced this one.

So, is the rest of it real or not? Is this a travelogue or a fiction set loosely in reality? Truly, it does not really matter. What does matter is that the author has created a laugh out loud story with its fair share of commentary on the time and the place of its setting.

"We had come out for a fortnight's enjoyment on the river, and a fortnight's enjoyment on the river we meant to have. If it killed us!" I am not sure they had their fortnight of enjoyment; I know I enjoyed the hours I spent laughing along.

Book Club Note:  Out of the members present, I was the one who enjoyed the book the most. Most of the others found the book a little long and the stories a little too tangentially related. Those who have read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy did agree with the comparison between the two books.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, September 21, 2015


Title:  Untwine
Author:  Edwidge Danticat
Publication Information:  Scholastic Press. 2015. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0545423031 / 978-0545423038

Book Source:  I received this book through the GoodReads First Reads program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I remember what was playing when the car slammed into us."

Favorite Quote:  "Dear Future ... Please stun me. Astound me. Flabbergast me. Delight me. Amaze me. Astonish me!"

Parent's note:  Please note that the book listing suggests this for "ages 12 and up" and "grade 7 and up." The book deals with a violent, accidental death of a teenage girl and the complex emotions of a grieving family. As such, parents need to determine the appropriate age for their child to be reading the book. As an adult, read on!

Pure, unadulterated grief after a horrific tragedy - that is the sum total of the book. Giselle and Isabella are identical twins and as close as sisters can be. They are born holding hands. As they grow up, each finds her unique individuality and pursues her own unique talents. Yet, through it all, they remain close as twins and sisters do. In high school shortly before their seventeenth birthday, a horrible, terrible tragedy takes one from the other. Isabelle dies, and Giselle ends up in a coma.

Breath, Eyes, Memory, the first Edwidge Danticat book I read, tells its story in segments, stopping at crucial emotional points to pull the reader to another time and another place. As such, that book left me wanting more at each point. This book, on the other hand, launches you into the devastation of this accident and doesn't let go until the last page. It immerses you in Giselle's emotions through the accident, her physical recovery, and most importantly, her grief.

The story does leave some loose ends. Implied throughout is the idea that the crash may not have been an accident. Yet, the resolution of that is somewhat unsatisfying. It seems incomplete. Threaded throughout is also the author's (and hence the characters') Haitian heritage. It is present enough to be a feature of the story but not truly developed into a significant part. The book is not set in Haiti, and that background is not central to the story.

Ultimately, none of that matters. This is a story of grief and loss which transcends all explanations of why and transcends all geographic and cultural boundaries. From the time Giselle wakes up in the hospital, the reality of the accident assaults her. Her own injury. Her inability to communicate. Her family mistaking her for Isabelle. Her certainty of how and when Isabelle died. Through it all, reflections of their life before the accident pierce Giselle's memory, creating the image of the family that this accident destroys.

How do you bear a loss that is seemingly unbearable? The accident forever changes the entire Boyer family. For Giselle, the accident deprives her of a piece of herself. "I always imagined that if our fortunes were read, I would be half of Isabelle's future." After the accident, Giselle also becomes a constant reminder of what Isabelle could have - would have - been. "No one will ever forget Isabelle as long as I'm walking around with her body and her face. My sister is dead and I am her ghost." The writing, almost lyrical in nature, draws you into Giselle's grief so deeply and so intensely. At time, I see her grief at a distance, and at times, I am Giselle, feeling each moment.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

My Year of Running Dangerously: A Dad, a Daughter, and a Ridiculous Plan

Title:  My Year of Running Dangerously: A Dad, a Daughter, and a Ridiculous Plan
Author:  Tom Foreman
Publication Information:  Blue Rider Press. 2015. 288 pages.
ISBN:  0399175474 / 978-0399175473

Book Source: I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "As I charge over the hilltop, the trail is a muddy chute flanked by scrub and snow."

Favorite Quote:  "As people get older, life becomes all about playing it safe. We protect our jobs and our money. We guard our houses, and we try to make the world as risk-free as we can for our kids, because that is important. But along the way, you can lose yourself. You start thinking that the great adventures are all gone and that you've stretched all the limits ... I didn't want us to become some pale shadow of the family we were ... never taking any risks of our own ... I stopped getting through my days, and I started getting into them."

The subtitle of this book is "a dad, a daughter, and a ridiculous plan." The only piece of personal information included on Tom Foreman's online bio is that "he is an avid ultra-marathoner, frequently competing in races of fifty miles or more." This book bridges the gap between the "ridiculous plan" and the "avid ultra-marathoner" and tells the story of how a man, at over fifty years of age, rediscovers his love of running and goes beyond what he could even have imagined.

His daughter is the trigger to start Tom Foreman running again. He ran in his youth and then stopped as other interests and obligations took over. His college-age daughter's request to run a marathon starts him training again. He then goes on to other marathons and significantly longer ultra marathons. The book is his journey of rediscovery and discovery. A rediscovery of his love of running and a discovery of the possibilities of what he can accomplish.

Tom Foreman is a long-time correspondent for CNN News. He writes and appears on TV and has traveled the world in pursuit of the news. He has won Emmy Awards for some of his stories. So, it's only natural that the journalist in Tom Foreman comes out in this book. Along with his personal journey, he includes bits of history and factual information about the sport of running, for example, the history of how a marathon came to be, a description of some of the health concerns runners encounter, and a look at the sport of ultra marathons. Since I am not involved in the sport, I learned a lot.

Tom Foreman's experience as a writer also shows clearly in this book. The book is very readable and seems to move very quickly. It is fascinating to peek behind the scenes at the mindset and dedication and focus it takes to be an ultra athlete and the toll it takes on other aspects of his life. Given the subtitle of the book, I did expect his daughter and their relationship to be a bigger part of the book. However, this is truly a book about running - the blood, sweat and tears and the exhilaration.

A significant section of the book takes the reader on the trek of the first ultra marathon Tom Foreman takes part in. I did not expect to enjoy this part as much as I did especially since by this point in the book, I am ready to move on from hearing about one more training run. Surprising, this section, in fact, is my favorite part of the book. The descriptions of the trail, the conditions, and the emotional ups and downs are very well done. They take me through a situation I (and frankly, most people!) will never experience first hand. I feel like I am there, struggling with him and, at the same time, cheering him on to keep going.

The final chapters of the book are the life lessons and the reflections. Not unexpected and not truly necessary but a satisfying punctuation mark to conclude an inspiring, entertaining story. A piece of advice for runners and for everyone with a goal in mind. "Don't worry about reaching the end of your run. Just focus on the next step."

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Black-Eyed Susans

Title:  Black-Eyed Susans
Author:  Julia Heaberlin
Publication Information:  Ballantine. 2015. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0804177996 / 978-0804177993

Book Source:  I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Thirty-two hours of my life are missing."

Favorite Quote:  "I'm the one who kept my monster alive."

Black-eyed susans are, on the one hand, such beautiful, bright flowers. On the other hand, the "Susans" is the name given to the victims of a serial killer. Tessa is the one who survived ... barely. She is the one who was found with the remains of others in the middle of a field of black-eyed susans. She is the one who struggles, years later, to create a life of herself and her child. She is the one whose past has returned to haunt her. Someone is planting and leaving black-eyes susans for her.

The killer was supposedly caught and is on death row. If he is truly the killer, then who is stalking Tessa? If he is not the killer, why is he on death row? For years, a group has sought to prove his innocence and has sought Tessa's cooperation in doing so. Now, Tessa is no longer sure if he is indeed guilty, and she decides to help.

So, we have an adult Tessa as she battles her increasing fears of her stalker, as she worries about her daughter, and as she joins the effort to free the man accused and convicted of trying to kill her. We also have teenage Tessie, in the time following the horrific attacks as she tries to recover and as she is a key in catching and convicting the killer. In both times, surrounding her are friends and family.

The book goes back and forth between the two periods. It is one of many books I have read recently that uses this technique. Unfortunately, in this one, the approach makes the book difficult to follow. So many of the characters are the same. The key change between the sections is the name - the adult Tessa versus the teenage Tessie. However, at times, I find myself confused as to what happens in what time period and where I am at a given point. My suggestion, if you read the book, is to pay close attention to the dates in the chapter headings.

The teenage sections of this book remind me of the book We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. The book has a young adult tone about it, and those sections in particular seem to focus on teenage angst, friendships, and relationships much more so than the mystery of what happened to the Susans.

For me, this detracts from the suspense of the book. With the teenage drama and the back and forth, I don't get caught up in the story or caught up in the suspense. Plus, for no reason that I can specify, I predicted what at least part of the ending brings. I can't point to the clues except that one of the first conversations that includes a certain character just strikes me as odd. So, my immediate thought is that this character and conversation is there for a reason. With that in mind, clues start revealing themselves throughout the book. Again, I don't know even why this conversation stands out to me, but it does, and there goes the suspense of the book.

The most interesting aspect of the book for me is the forensic science. Clearly, the author has done her research and shares some of the details of things like DNA testing and other forensic tools. Even some of the legal descriptions, however, include references to the OJ Simpson case, which I find jarring. I don't understand the reason for drawing in such a controversial case to this fictional story. The references seem simply to stand out rather than add anything to the story.

I chose this book because of its intriguing title and cover art. Unfortunately, that for me remains the most intriguing part of the book.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Night Sister

Title:  The Night Sister
Author:  Jennifer McMahon
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2015. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0385538510 / 978-0385538510

Book Source:  I read this book based on how much I enjoyed Jennifer McMahon's book, The Winter People.

Opening Sentence:  "Amy's heart hammers, and her skin is slick with sweat."

Favorite Quote:  "The world looks at me and sees a happy girl. A girl bubbling with hope and optimism. So sweet. So innocent. Oh, the things they don't know! Could never guess at! It's all an act; I am the greatest actress of all!"

In 2013, a ghastly, gruesome murder leaves all but one family member dead. In the 1980s, three friends make a ghoulish discovery. In the 1960s, one of two sisters disappears.

Jennifer McMahon's book, The Winter People, had the sleepers. This books has the mares. "Mares are human during the day, but at night, they change into all different creatures. One minute, they're a person; the next, they can be a cat, a bird, or a butterfly ... But sometimes they turn into terrible monsters..."

Are mares real or are they just a story told to children? Given how The Winter People went and given the fact that the above definition is found close to the start of the book, I think we all know how that question gets answered. The question that remains is who? In each time period, who? In each generation, benevolent or malevolent? How do the generations link together?

In the 1960s are sisters Rose and Sylvia. Sylvia has dreams of being an actress. She is the beautiful one and the smart one. She is also the one writing letters to Alfred Hitchcock about the strange goings on in her life. A bit obvious perhaps, but fun to read. Rose is forever in Sylvia's shadow. Then, one day, one of the sisters disappears. Who? How? Why? This section to me is the best part part of the book, for Rose and Sylvia and their sisterly rivalry seems the most real part of the book.

In the 1980s are friends Amy, Piper, and Margot. Together, they share secrets and explore their world.  Of course, there is a boy involved. At one point, they make a gruesome discovery in Amy's home. The events that follow break up the friendship between the girls. Piper leaves the small town in which they live, while Amy and Margot remain. This aspect of the story is typical teenage drama with one gory addition.

In 2013, Amy and her family are the victims of a ghastly tragedy. The investigation brings Piper back to town and opens up all the secrets long buried. Although this tragedy and what happens next is the focal point of the book, it seems the least developed and the least cohesive of the three time periods perhaps because it becomes only the hook into the past.

Alternating between the three time periods, the book gives bits and pieces of each story until they all come together in a dramatic conclusion.

I read this book because I so enjoyed The Winter People. So, comparisons are inevitable. This book unfortunately just does not come together in the same way. The book starts off by answering the question of "what" close to the beginning of the book. The question of "who" can be answered in each time period by a process of elimination. For that reason, the book does not have the same intensity or suspense.

Two other anomalies stand out in this book. First is the entire storyline surrounding Margot and her pregnancy. The book goes into how Margot and her husband's relationship came to be and how that relates to Amy. Then, a lot of time is spent discussing Margot's pregnancy and the effect of the Amy's tragedy on that pregnancy. Why? It really has no relevance to the main story at all. It only adds volume to the book.

Second, the ending of the book is a letdown. The supernatural element, so effectively handled in The Winter People, is considerably less effective in this book. Mainly though, the characters in the book don't really develop. As a result, I am not invested in the characters or the story and am left with the reaction, "That's it?"

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age

Title:  Reclaiming Conversation:  The Power of Talk in a Digital Age
Author:  Sherry Turkle
Publication Information:  Penguin Press. 2015. 464 pages.
ISBN:  1594205558 / 978-1594205552

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Why a book on conversation?"

Favorite Quote:  "Relationships deepen not because we necessarily say anything in particular but because we are invested enough to show up for another conversation. In family conversations, children learn that what can matter most is not the information shared but the relationships sustained."

The subtitle of this book states "the power of talk in a digital age." The book dissects the negative impacts of the digital age on conversations and the life skills and benefits that face to face conversation brings. It issues a call to action to reclaim conversation.

The book is structured around an idea presented by Henry David Thoreau. Henry David Thoreau is perhaps best known for his work Walden, a documentation of his return to a simpler life. For his life at Walden Pond, Thoreau said, "I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society."

This book follows this metaphor throughout. A section focuses on the first chair - the need for solitude and the impact of ever present technology on our ability to just be with ourselves. The next section focuses on the two chairs - friendship. It talks about the use of technology to communicate among family, friends, and colleagues. It presents examples of what is being lost with our movement away from face to face communications. Another section focuses on the the three chairs - the more global and societal impacts of our movement away from true conversation. This book goes on to a more philosophical level and introduces a fourth chair. It includes a fascinating discussion of what it means to be human and how technology is changing that definition. 

The problem is not simple, but it is simply stated. Machines, no matter how sophisticated, emulate human behavior as if they understand and as if a human being was responding. However, no matter what, the machines cannot in fact completely comprehend human thought and emotion and cannot be human. What human abilities, relationships, and tasks we are willing to relegate to machines? "Intelligence once meant more than why any artificial intelligence does. It used to include sensibility, sensitivity, awareness, discernment, reason, acumen, and wit. And yet we readily call machines intelligent now." What do we lose by doing so?

Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT who specializes in studying human-technology interactions, backs up her views with examples and data from her research as well as a wide range of other research (as listed in the end notes for the book). The book sites everything from the advertising of Siri as a companion and the use of services such as SnapChat and Facebook to the recent movie Her, in which a shy, lonely man falls in "love" with an operating system. "We had a love affair with a technology that seemed magical. But like great magic, it worked by commanding our attention and not letting us see anything but what the magician wanted us to see. Now we are ready to reclaim our attention, for solitude, for friendship, for society."

The prescription too is not simple but is simply stated. Create times and places in your life that are device free and create devices which are less likely to pull people away from face to face interaction. Apply this rule in personal and professional settings. Allow conversation to restart. The solution is not to do away with technology, but "to be more intentional in our use for technology."

Interesting and full of ideas I agree with, the book comes repeatedly to the same simple ideas from a myriad of directions and with a variety of examples - perhaps too many for me for I already agree with many of the the ideas of this book. I don't need to be convinced, but many people do. Hopefully, in the many examples, at least some will strike a chord with readers, and a conversation will begin.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!

Title:  This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!
Author:  Jonathan Evison
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2015. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1616202610 / 978-1616202613

Book Source:  I received this book through a publisher's giveaway free of cost in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Shelf Awareness.

Opening Sentence:  "Here you come, Harriet Nathan, tiny face pinched, eyes squinting fiercely against the glare of surgical lamps, at a newly renovated Swedish hospital, high on Seattle's First Hill."

Favorite Quote:  "If we've learned one thing ... we've learned this:  While the days unfold, one after the other, and the numbers all move in one direction, our lives are not linear, Harriet. We are the sum of moments and reflections, actions and decisions, triumphs, failures, and yearnings, all of it held together, inexplicably, miraculously, really, by memory and association."

Harriet Chance is seventy-eight years old and being visited by the ghost of her dead husband Bernard. Bernard is breaking all the rules of the afterlife and coming back to Harriet. This is Harriet's life - from age zero to age seventy-eight and with plenty of stops in between.

In one of the chapters towards the beginning, the book describes its journey. "Yes, yes, we're all over the place again, pinballing across the decades, slinging and bumping our way through the days of your life, seemingly at random ... But look a little closer, Harriet, and you'll see there's a method to the madness, a logic to the game."

This pinball approach takes the reader on a journey through Harriet's entire life. The narrative style of this book unique, and it works. It is a first person plural narrative. "We" are telling Harriet's story. "We" have all the knowledge of Harriet's life as Harriet herself would. At times, it's as if "we" show Harriet her own life and speak to her about the choices she makes, doesn't make, could have made, should have made, and so on.

The "we" is never identified, but sometimes it has elements of the collective voice of a Greek chorus. Of course, the book title seems a direct reference to the old TV show This is Your Life, which sought to surprise a guest with an audience looking on. (If you've ever seen that show or clips from it, you read the title as it sounds in that show, right? I know I did.)

In essence, this book tells the story of Harriet's life to the reader as audience; Harriet and the reader audience get quite a few surprises along the way. Harriet's story, like most of our own stories, is one of forks in the road, some of her choosing and some thrust upon her. Childhood experiences, jobs, careers, marriage, motherhood, love, loss, death, betrayal.

Without a spoiler, I will say I did not care for the events where the book ends up for an explanation of some of Harriet's choices. I find it unnecessary and not truly an explanation for Harriet's life. Her life may have gone the exact same direction without those events. For me, those events bring Harriet a little further away from someone I can completely relate with. (That is a cryptic comment, but I don't do spoilers so that's the best I can do.)

In present time, at age seventy-eight, Harriet is also dealing with her own ailments, her best friend in a  nursing home, her two children each with their own problems, and, of course, the ghost of her dead husband. Did I mention that people think she's a little crazy because she is certain that her dead husband is still with her? Oh, and add to that the fact that Harriet decides to go on an Alaskan cruise. She discovers that her husband had booked this trip for two, and she decides to go on without him.

In other words, this book has its moments of humor, but underlying that is a retrospective seriousness about Harriet reflecting on who she is and how she got to this point in her life. The choices made all seem the right one at the time they were made, but is this where she was meant to be? Her question is one that many people ponder at times in their lives.

Harriet is a charming, sympathetic main character. Even more importantly, Harriet is human, with eccentricities and faults of her own, and with a mixed-up, messy life like most of ours.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Saturday, September 5, 2015


Title:  SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient--Powered by the Science of Games
Author:  Jane McGonigal
Publication Information:  Penguin Press. 2015. 480 pages.
ISBN:  1594206368 / 978-1594206368

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The SuperBetter method is designed to make you stronger, happier, braver, and more resilient."

Favorite Quote:  "We have more power, more mental control, over what we feel, moment to moment, than we realize."

SuperBetter is a self-help approach with a new twist - the mindset and terminology of video games. The premise is that the physical, mental, emotional, and social skills an individual displays in video games can be applied to our lives to improve our well being. The book accompanies an online forum in which you can set up your "game."

The book is very well organized and easy to read. It uses text features such as text boxes, lists, and other formatting tools to clearly set out information. Each section offers a preview of what is to come, and the end of each section presents a summary of major ideas. Adopting the gaming mindset, the book presents the SuperBetter method rules:
  • Challenge yourself - what is your goal?
  • Collect and activate power-ups - small concrete actions move you towards your goal.
  • Find and battle the bad guys - what challenges or obstacles stand in your way?
  • Seek out and complete quests - translate your bigger goal into smaller, achievable steps.
  • Recruit your allies - build a community of support around you, whether from the people in your real life or others who share your goals or challenges.
  • Adopt a secret identity - put the power of imagination to work and envision the characteristics you wish to develop.
  • Go for an epic win!
Integrated with the presentation of the method are activities to engage the reader - "quests" for the reader to complete. In other words, reading about an approach to "make you a stronger person in every way:  mentally, emotionally, physically, and socially" is not enough; you have to put the ideas into practice.

The book has three main sections. Part 1 explains the gaming mindset and what skills gaming taps into and develop. Part 2 makes the connection of applying the gaming paradigm to your own real-life goals. The book does suggest that if you are immediately ready for action, skip Part 1 and go directly to Part 2. Finally, Part 3 suggests a sequence of specific actions for commonly stated challenges such the "ninja body transformation."

The book begins with a section that lists the major studies on which the book is based. The book also includes a section at the end "About the Science." The end notes cites about five hundred papers on which this research is based. In addition, the author provides an online link with further links to online, public versions of the papers or research abstracts for those that cannot be publicly shared. The idea that the approach is based in science is reinforced often in the book. Case studies demonstrate how people have used the approach. Dr. McGonigal shares own experiences as an example; her research and this approach came about partially for her own benefit as she struggled to recover from a serious concussion. However, the presentation of the book is not data driven. The scientific data may underlie the book, but it is not the focus of the book. The focus stays on the application of the SuperBetter method to life.

One side note about book format. The book uses many text boxes with graphic frames to set off particular types of information. While visually appealing, the graphics affect the readability of the book in electronic format. The pages with graphic elements are slow to load, causing a break in the reading. (Please note that this may be an issue specifically with the galley I received and may be resolved in the published edition of the book. If not, then I would recommend a print format.)

As with most books of this type, the ideas are not new. Psychological resilience helps you pursue and achieve goals and helps you recover from setbacks. If the metaphor of video games - with power ups, quests, allies, and bad guys - works for you, you will likely find the book works for you. If this is not the metaphor for you, similar tools and techniques can be found elsewhere. Either way, it's up to. Read about and then put it into practice.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Me Before You

Title:  Me Before You
Author:  Jojo Moyes
Publication Information:  Pamela Dorman Books. 2012. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0670026603 / 978-0670026609

Book Source:  I read this book based on a friend's recommendation.

Opening Sentence:  "When he emerges from the bathroom she is awake, propped up against the pillows and flicking through the travel brochures that were beside his bed."

Favorite Quote:  "You only get one life. It's actually your duty to live it as fully as possible."

What would you do? That is the question at the heart of this book. It's the question I hope no one ever has to face, but what if? What would you do if you were Will? What would you do if you were Will's parents? What would you do if you were Louisa?

Will Traynor is a young, vibrant, wealthy businessman until a motorcycle accident leaves him a quadriplegic. He now lives on his parent's estate with continuous in-home car. His life, as he knows it, is over. Along comes Louisa Clark, a young woman living a closed, sheltered life in her small corner of the world. She needs a job, and Will's parents need a companion for Will.

At first glance, Louisa seems ill-equipped for the task. She has no nursing skills and no relevant experience. Her last job was in a cafe. Yet, she manages to reach Will in a way no has since his accident. Louisa is hired for only six months. Why? As Louisa discovers, therein lies the decision of Will's life.

Me Before You takes on the very serious, very divisive issue of the "right to die." Ultimately, each individual makes his or own choice. The debate centers around whether such a right should ever exist under the law, whether it should exist under the law in certain circumstances such as a terminal illness, or whether it should be a universal legal right. For many, it is a very simple decision of faith; for others, it is an equally simple decision for completely different reasons.

Regardless of your beliefs, this book draws for you the image of one family grappling with this situation. Most of the book is from Louisa's perspective with an occasional chapter from the perspectives of Will's mother, father, and nurse. Each one provides a glimpse into the struggle Will's accident and decision create for those who love him. Interestingly, the one perspective not really represented in the book is Will's. The reader never gets a chance to see inside Will's head; the story moves around him.

Me Before You has more substance than Danielle Steel books and less intensity than Jodi Picoult books. The book takes on a very serious issue but sets it in the lives of the wealthy. Many will dislike this book for the topic it addresses and the view it takes. I am not getting into that debate, but I can list many story-based reasons why this book shouldn't work.

The Traynor's wealth opens up options such as full-time in home care and impromptu trips around the word, which are completely unrealistic for the majority of the world. Yet, until Louisa comes along, no one has researched or gotten Will the technological tools - such as a voice controlled keyboard - that can give him some independence. His dedicated nurse/therapist didn't suggest these tools? Also, even with the wealth, nothing proactive seems to be done about Will's decision. He seems to get all the physical care he needs, but what about the psychological care?

Most characters in the book do not really develop. In fact, most of them build on stereotypes. Louisa seems to emerge from her shell, but other than that, the remaining characters are relatively one-dimensional. Even with Louisa, it is frustrating to me that a man becomes the reason Louisa sheds her past and reaches for her potential. Why not characterize a strong, independent woman in this situation?

The plot line from Louisa's past seems too convenient and sketchy. Things are hinted at but not clarified, yet this is a defining moment of her life. Why is it there? Once again, why not characterize a strong, independent woman in this situation?

This book paints a very tragic, one-sided picture of Will's life after the accident. The accident was a tragedy, a devastating one. However, many people not only survive such accidents but lead fulfilling, joyful lives. Life is never the same, but that does not mean that life cannot be happy. That aspect is hinted at during some of the online conversations that Louisa has in her research. However, that is barely a glimmer. To me, that message needed a stronger presence in this book. Very few books are written with disabled individuals as main characters. It would wonderful to see strength, courage, and positive qualities in the characters' lives.

All that aside, I can only give one reason why this book does work as a story. It makes me care about this family and about these two flawed individuals with their own decisions and heartaches. I care about them enough to read the book straight through to find out what happens. I will probably read the sequel for the same reason. I want to know what happens next.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.