Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Thursday, April 30, 2020

"Weather" by Jenny Offill

Here's a book that I feel sure would only improve if it were sipped slowly . . . yet I couldn't help but gulp it down.

Weather is the story of librarian and amateur therapist Lizzie, who lives in an unnamed city which I assume to be New York. I use the word "story" loosely; it's really more of a slice of life, though I wouldn't refer to it as completely plotless. It's a brief book, and perfect for a reader with a short attention span as it's basically a series of clipped, loosely-connected paragraphs. A quick glance back through the book doesn't fully confirm this impression, but it's almost as if each little paragraph could stand on its own as a nanobook.

Lizzie has a small family (a husband and young son) and is "enmeshed" with her recovering-addict brother (which I suppose is the new way to say "codependent"). She is also hyper-focused on the eventual effects of climate change (hence the book's title), though she expends far more mental energy on how she will deal with its eventuality than on the possibility of effecting any sort of change to prevent or slow global warming.

Maybe it's difficult to gather this from what I've written so far, but I really enjoyed reading this book. Not in the way that I loved Once Upon a River; the two experiences were entirely different. But this is one of the rare books I would like to read again sometime, especially now that I know what to expect. Because, unlike a plot-driven book that is all the better for its unknown twists and turns, I feel like a second read would make it easier to focus on the writing and the ideas rather than wondering what might happen.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

"Once Upon a River" by Diane Setterfield


From the very first page I was drawn in by the storyteller's voice. It felt like a tale told aloud--maybe a fairy tale, maybe something even better. And, lucky for me, the rest of the book upheld the promise of its beginnings. 

I came within two pages of the end of this book last Thursday and could not bear to finish it. Because if I finished it, then there wouldn't be anything left of it to read. Not only that, but the unfortunate odds are that the next book I choose to read will not compare in the slightest.

Why can't all books be as enthralling as this one?

This book was not absolutely flawless; in my opinion, the climactic scene (with Robin and Robert Armstrong and the newly-revealed villain) becomes something of an info dump. All necessary info, to be sure, which I eagerly lapped up. But even as I read I wished for a little more show and a little less tell. A minor quibble, however.

This is a story that begins in the Swan at Radcot, an inn on the upper Thames. On the night of the winter solstice, the drinking and storytelling is interrupted by the arrival of an injured man carrying a drowned child. Who is the man and who does the child belong to? Before long, those in the inn have a new story to tell, and many more questions.

I read the last two pages just a moment ago. What had vaguely threatened to be a slightly mundane denouement turned out to be perfectly lovely after all, and was completed by the most perfect final paragraph possible.

And now it's time to choose a new book. I already feel sorry for it.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

"How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie

This book has always kind of seemed like a mild joke to me. It's the sort of thing that is firmly rooted in pop culture, something that everyone has heard of but no one has actually read, nor does anyone really believe it can teach what it claims to teach, so no one takes it seriously. It's really only invoked when someone privately suggests to a third party that their hard-to-deal-with colleague ought to read it.

I wish I could remember what it was that inspired me to give it a try. I vaguely think maybe it was the idea that it might be useful in my job. I feel very confident and skilled in the "work" part of my job, but the "people" part of my job doesn't always go so smoothly because, well, you know what people are like.

Now that I've read it, I believe a more proper title would be How to Fake Friendship and Manipulate People. It is quite plausible that the principles of this book are a recipe for success in business, but I'm not looking to become a glad-handing good old boy who is busy giving and receiving back-scratchings. My work isn't such that becoming that type of personality would be very helpful. I mean, it might help a very little bit? But it wouldn't be worth the energy, discomfort and awkwardness of a full transition.

However, that's not to say the book is useless and I learned nothing from it. I will say, though, that I came across a tiny little mini version of this book (after I already owned and had started reading the full version)--at the time, and still, I wished I'd gotten that teeny tiny book instead. I think the mini-version would be just as effective in delivering the book's message to me.

Speaking of delivering the book's message, each chapter has a one-sentence summary, and I will list them for you here.

Fundamental techniques in dealing with people:
1. Don't criticize, condemn or complain.
2. Give honest and sincere appreciation.
3. Arouse in the other person an eager want.
In other words, Always Try to Be a Nice Person On the Outside Even When You're Actually a Nasty Person on the Inside.

Six ways to make people like you:
1. Become genuinely interested in other people.
2. Smile.
3. Remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
4. Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
5. Talk in terms of the other person's interests.
6. Make the other person feel important--and do it sincerely.
To me, this section applies more to small talk with acquaintances than to any deep meaningful relationships.

How to win people to your way of thinking:
1. The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.
2. Show respect for the other person's opinions. Never say, "You're wrong."
3. If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
4. Begin in a friendly way.
5. Get the other person saying "yes, yes" immediately [by asking them questions they will agree to]
6. Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.
7. Let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers.
8. Try honestly to see things from the other person's point of view.
9. Be sympathetic with the other person's ideas and desires.
10. Appeal to the nobler motives.
11. Dramatize your ideas.
12. Throw down a challenge.
I think this section might be most useful for a person who works in sales. Some of these principles don't feel appropriate for personal relationships, or for business relationships not related to sales. On the other hand . . . one of my favorite principles of this section is #1. No matter how strongly you may disagree with someone, in polite society it most often makes sense to drop the subject rather than bull-headedly argue your point. It pays to recognize when winning an argument is actually a loss in other ways.

Be a leader: how to change people without giving offense or arousing resentment:
1. Begin with praise and honest appreciation.
2. Call attention to people's mistakes indirectly.
3. Talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person.
4. Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.
5. Let the other person save face.
6. Praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Be "hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise."
7. Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.
8. Use encouragement. Make the fault seem easy to correct.
9. Make the other person happy about doing the thing you suggest.
As a supervisor in my day job, this section is the one that could have been the most helpful to me. It's probably the area I need the most help in. I obviously have not always avoided giving offense or arousing resentment (this may or may not have happened as recently as Thursday, and I may or may not still be seeing passive-aggressive Facebook posts about it). But even after reading this section I still don't know what I could have done differently after I had stated expectations clearly, but those expectations were pointedly ignored, requiring me to firmly address the issue. Sigh. At least I think I learned one thing from this section, and that is number five. Maybe I'm right and I know I'm right, and maybe I know someone is telling me a big fat lie in order to make themselves seem less wrong, and maybe I can just let them get away with the big fat lie when it will make no difference to call them on it but it may make all the difference in the world to them to save face with it.

In summary: This book is geared towards the business world, not personal life, and I'm not sure how much I gained from it. Maybe I didn't learn its lessons well enough. Or maybe I just didn't want to incorporate them the way you'd need to do in order to see a difference. Maybe I will dip back into this book from time to time and see if any of the principles take root after a while? But if you are thinking of getting this book, I say go for the mini version, and then only if you're looking to work on your business relationships rather than personal ones.