Euphoria

I read Lily King’s Euphoria, and loved it. A love triangle among anthropologists on assignment in the jungles of New Guinea! Loosely based on/inspired by the life of Margaret Mead, who seems fascinating after doing a bit of side reading. Finding lovely turns of phrase like this is one of the reasons I read:

One woman had bright gold hair, the other eyelashes like black ferns.

Dark Places

I read Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, but I didn’t finish. It’s really into being dark, and it leans so hard on its ugly rawness that it seems a little… insecure? Let this not dissuade you from reading or watching Gone Girl, though. That one. That’s the stuff.

Train Dreams

I read Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams and enjoyed it. Short and sharp. I like the “scenes from a life” method here. Hits some highlights, not strictly chronological, plenty of asides and characters that aren’t strictly relevant to any plot (such as it is), but add color and fragrance to the story. Parts of it based around the Pacific Northwest logging scene reminded me of The Golden Spruce.

Thrillers

There are a lot of ways for a novelist to create suspense, but also really only two: one a trick, one an art.

The trick is to keep a secret. Or many secrets, even. In Lee Child’s books, Jack Reacher always has a big mystery to crack, but there are a series of smaller mysteries in the meantime, too, a new one appearing as soon as the last is resolved. J. K. Rowling is another master of this technique — Who gave Harry that Firebolt? How is Rita Skeeter getting her info?

The art, meanwhile, the thing that makes “Pride and Prejudice” so superbly suspenseful, more suspenseful than the slickest spy novel, is to write stories in which characters must make decisions.

Thrillers

Sphinx

I read Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, and there’s a crazy Oulipian experiment going on here. Once you realize the constraint that makes this book strange and different, you can’t help but be impressed that it was 1) written and 2) translated well (shout-out to Deep Vellum). It’s a story of the narrator’s obsession and romance, “caught up in a love that was always uncompleting itself”. I enjoyed it.

The Inner Game of Tennis

I read Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis, and really enjoyed it. It’s one of those “hub” books you come across every so often, where you realize there are spokes sticking out into a bunch of other stuff that’s been on your mind lately.

Gallwey’s working theory here is about the internal dichotomy between “Self 1” and “Self 2” in performance. Self 1 is that voice inside, that part of you that “knows” how to do things, that instructs, urges, reprimands, exhorts. Self 2 is the one that does things. Given that Self 1 is so eager to “try hard” and correct and evaluate, successful practice and performance is about building trust for Self 2 and learning through practice and simple observation.

Letting go of judgments does not mean ignoring errors. It simply means seeing events as they are and not adding anything to them.

Mindfulness! There’s a flip side of that, too – Self 1 can be too pleased with itself when things are going well. Self-congratulations also takes you out of the moment. I really like this section, about avoiding criticism as we learn:

When plant a rose seed in the earth, we notice that it is small, but we do not criticize it as “rootless and stemless”. We treat it as a seed, giving it the water and nourishment required of a seed. When it first shoots up out of the earth, we don’t condemn it as immature and underdeveloped; nor do we criticize the buds for not being open when they appear. We stand in wonder at the process taking place and give the plant the care it needs at each stage of its development. The rose is a rose from the time it is a seed to the time it dies. Within it, at all times, it contains its whole potential.

Another interesting bit:

If you think you are controlled by a habit, then you will feel you have to try to break it. […] There is no need to fight old habits. Start new ones.

And I thought this was nicely phrased…

Natural focus occurs when the mind is interested.

Focus isn’t something we do, it’s something that results.

I also like one final section on the games that people play aside from the actual game itself. We each tend to embrace different goals within the game: to be perfect, to be better than the other guy, to appear to be great, to bond, to learn, to be challenged, etc. Each of these motivations influence and contaminate and distract us from performance to some degree.

Very highly recommended!

Some other related posts around here: Never try to look cool and learn something at the same time. Nervous is good. Performance vs. editing. In order to have your best performance you have to be relaxed. That eye-on-the-object look. Reality not maybe is zen. Festina lente. Willing to be shit at things. Forever the 5-year-old of something. A good coach made you suffer in a way that suited you.

2001: A Space Odyssey

I re-read Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and am glad I did. It was cooler than I remembered. Much of it is a bit cold and distant, like the movies, but still has some awestruck moments, and it’s fun to come back to something that I’ve seen four or five times and have such convenient visuals/memories for. If you like the movie, this is a natural complement.

The Martian

I read about half of Andy Weir’s The Martian, and then I bailed. DNF. Definitely enjoyed the thought process and survival engineering. Ultimately, I was hoping for some more narrative progress, more quickly. On to the next.

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life

I read Russ Roberts’ book How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, and it’s certainly the most heavily dog-eared book I’ve read in the last couple months. It’s slighter in hindsight, but still got some good stuff out of it. Smith is best known for the more macro-level, distant, impersonal view on economics in The Wealth of Nations. This books relies on Smith’s lesser-known A Theory of Moral Sentiments, which explores the more intimate, direct relationships between individuals.

What I like is its undercurrent of humility and courtesy, for one, and the idea of ripple effects that go beyond us. There’s the idea of the “impartial spectator” in here – a hypothetical (and likely impossible) imagined outsider, an objective witness we can turn to to evaluate what we do. Of course, we’re delusional and biased and self-obsesssed. The principle stands, though, and the community around us helps to shape this hypothetical ideal that we imagine.

Virtuous behavior is like passable writing vs. great writing. At a basic level, there is grammar and syntax. There’s broad agreement on many of those details. But there’s a special something that goes beyond the basic requirements. Along the same lines, no one individual really decides what proper grammar is, and how a language works. But many people, making many small decisions every day, spread and sustain behaviors that add up to something bigger on the scale of family, office, neighborhood, nation, culture. And it’s that big-picture thinking that (hopefully) motivates us to “be lovely even when we can get away with not being lovely”. Going along with that are some healthy warnings about our obessions with powerful people, and about hubris when it comes to societal engineering.

Some other parts I like? Smith on keeping it simple:

What can be added to the happiness of the man who is in health, out of debt, and has a clear conscience?

Smith on praise we haven’t earned…

To us they [his praises] should be more mortifying than any censure, and should perpetually call to our minds, the most humbling of all reflections, the reflection of what we ought to be, but what we are not.

Or as Roberts phrases it, “Undeserved praise is a repimand – a reminder of what I could be.”

There’s another great section that talks about how gadgets are seductive. Roberts says, “We often care more about the elegance of the device than for what it can achieve.” Smith’s line here made me think about the tech and especially the #EDC community:

How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility? What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniences.

Smith on why friendship is so valuable when you’re grieving – we see our pain through their eyes, and see it’s not so bad:

We are immediately put in mind of the light in which he will view our situation, and we begin to view it ourselves in the same light; for the effect of sympathy is instantaneous.

Roberts on caring on a smaller scale than save-the-world dreams:

Maybe, just maybe, your best way of making the world a better place is to be a really superlative husband or mom or neighbor. […] We forget that being good at our work helps others and makes the world a better place, too.

And a lovely bit of rabbinic wisdom:

It is not up to you to finish the work. But you are not free to desist from it.

A similar, more energetic book along the same lines is Sarah Bakewell’s very excellent How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.

Sorry Please Thank You

I read Charles Yu’s Sorry Please Thank You, which I picked up after two of his other books made my 2014 favorites list. The opener “Standard Loneliness Package”, is one of the best in the book (a somewhat different version is online)…

Some genius in Delhi had figured out a transfer protocol to standardize and packetize all different kinds of experiences. Overnight, everything changed. An industry was born. The business of bad feeling. For the right price, almost any part of life could be avoided.

”Troubleshooting” and “Open” are other good examples of what you’re in for: short stories that are a little bit wistful or cynical, a little bit of comic exasperation, and a sort of tech- and/or scifi bent to them. Most of them work with a brain-teaser/experimental premise, but don’t feel as emotionally compelling as his earlier stuff. Third Class Superhero and How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe are definitely worthwhile, though. If you like those first, you’ll probably enjoy this, too.

StrengthsFinder 2.0

I and a few dozen folks I work with read Tom Rath’s StrengthsFinder 2.0. Good stuff. The assessment results tell me that my top strengths/themes are: Restorative®, Intellection®, Ideation®, Input®, and Relator®. Basically, I like fixing things; stockpiling ideas and connecting them; and sticking with people I’m close with. Sounds pretty fair, and there’s much more depth on each of those in the book and in their online thingy. At the very least, it explains why I love my job as much as I do. Also has some good ideas to invest in those strengths for TrueUltimatePower®. I was a bit skeptical, but it’s worth a read!

Texas: The Great Theft

I read Carmen Boullosa’s Texas: The Great Theft. It took me a while to catch on, but then I was able to coast along with the dozens and dozens of side characters and tangents. I didn’t love it, but haven’t read anything else where you get about ten thousand vivid snapshots of a time and place. Also, this book was the first release from Deep Vellum, a specialty translated lit operation run my friend Will Evans. So far my subscription is paying off. More to come.