Sunday, July 29, 2012

Words Can Change Your Brain by Andrew Newberg, M.D.

Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict, and Increase IntimacyWords Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict, and Increase Intimacy by Andrew Newberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Good parts - application of very recent studies by neuroscientists and business scholars to interpersonal communication, using personal values and strengths to make job decisions and cut down on stress,

Not anything new parts - active listening repackaged as 'compassionate communication,' progressive relaxation repackaged as 'compassionate communication,' and meditation repackaged as 'compassionate communication.'  I also feel like presenting it as 12 steps makes me want to take it less seriously.  That's me.

That said, it wasn't a bad read, and it never hurts to be reminded of these core concepts.  A few parts from the book that I will follow up on, probably read the original articles the information comes from:

"Extreme brevity keeps the emotional centers of the brain from sabotaging a conversation."
He goes on to discuss how you could use this in business, with limiting people to 30 second summaries.  This might be a good idea to adopt for a departmental weekly meeting, actually.

"Research shows that the best way to deal with negativity is to observe it inwardly, without reaction and without judgment. The next step is to consciously reframe each negative feeling and thought by shaping it into a positive, compassionate, and solution-based direction."
The first sentence of this brings Eckhart Tolle immediately to mind, in The Power of Now. The author of Words Can Change Your Brain is insistent that negativity not be brought up between two people, at all if it can be helped.  I appreciated the underlying principles of this, and even the science, but without complete buy-in by all parties involved, this is difficult to put into practice.  I found the science behind what happens when negativity and anger are expressed to be incredibly fascinating.

"A positive view of yourself will bias you toward seeing the good in others, whereas a negative self-image will incline you toward suspicion and doubt."
This is the most explicit section proving how words change your brain.  So if I'm more stubborn about not allowing the negative to creep in, it should get easier because my brain won't be used to it.  I have to say, after reading in this book about the impact negativity can have on a relationship, I made a concerted effort not to vent to my husband.  And I couldn't not vent!  Our nightly decompressing has become a part of our routine.  I can't just keep it in.  This book showed me I may want to consider finding a better outlet.  Something more personal, not bringing him into my emotions.

"By simply pondering and affirming your deepest values you'll improve the health of your brain, you'll protect yourself from burnout at work, you'll reduce your propensity to ruminate about failure, and you'll be less reactive and defensive when someone confronts you with uncomfortable information."
I felt this to be the most compelling section of the entire book - focusing on values, and I directed some colleagues to the section on values reflection.

Around the World Audiobook Giveaway - City of Women by David Gillman

I am happy to announce Giveaway #2 for the Around the World in 52 Books Challenge.  This time I'm posting an audiobook, thanks to the generosity of the people at Penguin Audio. 

The book is City of Women by David R. Gillham, a historical novel about the women living in Berlin during World War II.  I got a chance to read the eBook through the Penguin First Flights program, and enjoyed it a great deal.  (You can read my review, posted in early July, if you want to know my thoughts on the book.)

Here is the publisher summary:

Who do you trust, who do you love, and who can be saved? 
It is 1943—the height of the Second World War—and Berlin has essentially become a city of women.
Sigrid Schröder is, for all intents and purposes, the model German soldier’s wife: She goes to work every day, does as much with her rations as she can, and dutifully cares for her meddling mother-in-law, all the while ignoring the horrific immoralities of the regime. But behind this façade is an entirely different Sigrid, a woman who dreams of her former lover, now lost in the chaos of the war. Her lover is a Jew.

But Sigrid is not the only one with secrets.

A high ranking SS officer and his family move down the hall and Sigrid finds herself pulled into their orbit.  A young woman doing her duty-year is out of excuses before Sigrid can even ask her any questions.  And then there’s the blind man selling pencils on the corner, whose eyes Sigrid can feel following her from behind the darkness of his goggles.

Soon Sigrid is embroiled in a world she knew nothing about, and as her eyes open to the reality around her, the carefully constructed fortress of solitude she has built over the years begins to collapse. She must choose to act on what is right and what is wrong, and what falls somewhere in the shadows between the two. 
In this page-turning novel, David Gillham explores what happens to ordinary people thrust into extraordinary times, and how the choices they make can be the difference between life and death.
The contest is open to anyone living in the USA.  You do not have to be a part of the Around the World reading challenge.  Just leave a comment up until midnight on Saturday, August 4, and I will draw one lucky name. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

A Pale View Of HillsA Pale View Of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As part of our "Summertime in Japan" project in The World's Literature group, this book was on the list for Ishiguro. I had only read Never Let Me Go by this author, and while the stories don't have much in common, both are told in a non linear fashion and contain a lot to think about.

In fact, I'm still thinking about it. If you are a person who doesn't like to know the endings of books before you read them, you might want to stop here.  It is very difficult to discuss the book without talking about the end.

When you get to the end, there is a scene on a bridge where Etsuko's narrative seems to morph into Sachiko's point of view. All of the sudden, I thought, oh, are they the same person? For so much of the first half of the novel, I thought that either Sachiko or Mariko may be suffering from some form of severe mental illness. They definitely didn't interact like a typical mother-daughter relationship. Mariko doesn't go to school and frequently leaves, talking about some strange woman she has seen. Sachiko keeps making plans to leave that never work out.

Etsuko herself is telling the story from England, where she moved with her first child, and then had a second child from a second marriage. The younger daughter has come to visit her after her older sister's suicide.

So much of the book is about moving forward, about letting go of the past, an essential theme because they live in Nagasaki, not long after the end of World War II. Right before the bridge scene, Etsuko says, "Memory, I realize, can be an unreliable thing; often it is heavily coloured by the circumstances in which one remembers, and no doubt this applies to certain of the recollections I have gathered here."

In my mind, and who knows if this is what the author intended, Etsuko and Sachiko are the same. Etsuko has been retelling her history to herself to make it easier to stomach. Clearly her daughter's suicide is partly her fault, but it is clear that she doesn't think so from the way she tells the story.

I also wonder at the title. Throughout the book, the hills outside Nagasaki are described as pale, shrouded in clouds and fog. It seems as if the past could be described the same way. I don't think I'm reading too much into it! I think Ishiguro wants us to keep thinking about this story, and I have been.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke

The Fountains of ParadiseThe Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn't expect to like this. Space elevators, yawn. We discussed this on the SFF Audio Podcast, and I'm glad we did because I may not have read it otherwise. 

The setting, in Sri Lanka, with the historic temple/kingdom/gardens - first of all I can't believe that place exists. But it does.

And then somehow it is the only appropriate place to build a space elevator. The story goes backwards and forwards in time. It triggered my imagination like when I was young!

My Foray Into Urban Fantasy

Back in April, I asked you, my readers, to help me pick a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy to read more of.  Urban fantasy took 61% of the vote! 

I had read urban fantasy before - the first Dresden Files book, some of the early Holly Black books in grad school, an elf-punk selection for the Sword and Laser bookclub - but none of it had really stuck with me or made me want to read more.  I started to wonder if books I really liked - Alif the Unseen, The Killing Moon, even Palimpsest - could be considered urban fantasy.  I felt like they had elements of UF in them, although interestingly, all of them are set somewhere other than in a western country.

I decided to dig deeper by reading two anthologies.  Here are my reviews, and I will summarize my feelings at the end.

Down These Strange StreetsDown These Strange Streets by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

George R. R. Martin promises in his introduction that urban fantasy is no longer an elf on a motorcycle wandering the streets of Toronto solving crimes.

Really, though, most of these stories connect to series the authors write. Without that background, they often lack enough context to figure out where you are without knowing the characters and world they inhabit. From reading other people's reviews, many people are buying this anthology because of one story they wanted to read. Most people seem to be buying it for "In Red, with Pearls" by Patricia Briggs, but see, I don't know who Kyle is.

Most of these stories have detectives in a noir-fantasy universe, with a lot of stereotypes. There isn't a lot of great writing here.

The one exception is Joe Lansdale's "The Bleeding Shadow," where a record possesses the power to unleash the evil in the air around us, but still make you want to play it. Wow, creepy stuff, and the reader on this one elevated the story.

I'm not sure I'd recommend this to anyone who isn't already a fan of these authors and their series. It isn't a good introduction to the urban fantasy subgenre, which is what I intended to use it for. It is a very narrow slice of that subgenre, and not all of it is great.

Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasy (Riverside Series; The Dresden Files, #10.9)Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasy by Ellen Datlow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are some great stories here, and others that I merely skimmed. Perhaps if I articulate what I liked, I will understand my feelings about urban fantasy more.

"Picking Up the Pieces" by Pat Cadigan - about the Berlin Wall coming down. I'm still not sure I understand what happened but I still think about the story.

"The Bricks of Gelecek" by Matthew Kressel - a wind in the desert befriends a human. Loved the setting, the concept, the ending.

"The Projected Girl" by Lavie Tidhar - magic combined with the Holocaust. The writing was great too. "The bookshops of Haifa are clustered like a gaggle of elderly, generally good-natured but occasionally difficult uncles...."

"The Way Station" by Nathan Ballingrud - the ghost of the city of New Orleans lives inside Trane's body. Cool concept!

"Noble Rot" by Holly Black - there are no words. This one pushes the boundaries into horror for sure.


Elf/vampire/ghoul detectives?  Not so interesting to me.  But the concepts in urban fantasy that seem successful are those that combine elements of alternative history with fantastical elements.  The stories I end up loving have nothing to do with the creature, and everything to do with the created world.  Give me more urban, in interesting ways.  Stretch time and landscape.  Make the characters thoughtful and unpredictable instead of formulaic.  And I'll keep reading it!

Authors I want to read more of, after this experiment:
  • Matthew Kressel
  • Lavie Tidhar (although he was actually already on my to-read list, and I started following him in Twitter after reading his story.  I promise I'm not a stalker!)
  • Joe Lansdale
While it took me forever to get through these anthologies - I'll be honest, I was reading them sporadically as I focused on other books - I did enjoy the experiment.  What should I do next?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

A Short History of Tractors in UkrainianA Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Around the World: 41 of 52 (Ukraine)

I had tracked a copy of this book down because it would fulfill the Ukraine component for my Around the World challenge as well as having been shortlisted for the Orange Prize.

Then I read a few fairly negative reviews, and it got pushed aside in Orange January. Then I decided to speed date it along with the other Orange Prize nominees that I had in the house, and it won!

I like the snappy dialogue, the quick storytelling, and the frustrating characters. Nadia and Vera are children of Ukrainian immigrants to the UK, actually immigrants themselves (although Nadia may have been born in the UK, I'm not clear). Their mother has passed away and their mid-80s father has become engaged to a Ukrainian who they suspect is after his money.

And he really doesn't have very much money. He is fascinated by "...the relationship between mechanical engineering as applied to tractors and the psychological engineering advocated by Stalin, as applied to the human soul," and is working on a book. Through his book, you get his view of Ukraine, of war and of politics, and through the stories he and Nadia's older sister tell, you learn quite a bit about their early history.

Through the contrast between Valentina and the family, you also see the misconceptions both countries have of each other, and the changes between various sociopolitical systems in the Ukraine.

I'm not sure it is "extremely funny" or "mad and hilarious" as advertised on the cover blurbs, in fact that is the issue most reviewers seem to have - false advertising. As a story about the complexities of first-generation immigrants, and the frustrations of blending families, it is a good read.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

College Summer Reading 2012

We are about a month away from school being back in session! I am always curious about the books that institutions choose for freshman orientation book discussions, sometimes called "common reading."  I did a little poking around, and this is what I found for this year:
Some schools don't have a selection, per se, but make recommendations for reading. UC Berkeley picks a theme every year, and this year's theme is revolution!

What did you read as a first-year student?  Did I miss your institution?  What do you think of these picks?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson

Yes, Chef: A MemoirYes, Chef: A Memoir by Marcus Samuelsson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I only really knew Marcus Samuelsson from shows like Top Chef Masters, and vague references to a chef who was combining Swedish and African flavors in his cooking back when I was thinking about working towards being a chef myself. I didn't know much about him, but was interested in hearing his story.

I have to admit to being impressed. Marcus has always been incredibly driven. As a child, it was to be a soccer player, and when it turned out that he wasn't going to be big enough to cut it, he turned all that energy into cooking. He somehow knew when he needed to push more, to learn more, even from a young age, and his skill and persistence placed him in key restaurants from Sweden to Switzerland to Austria to the United States to France to cruise ships and back to New York, where he has recently opened his newest restaurant, Red Rooster.

Listening to the audiobook enhanced the story quite a bit for me. Sometimes he misreads the words, and it doesn't always flow. Still, what ends up happening is that it feels like he has pulled a chair up to your table to tell about his experiences. By the end, I was completely rooting for his success, as well as for anyone he'd be able to have an impact on. I found a warmth to him, a compassion even, that I wasn't expecting. His love of flavors and how they connect to a community's history inform his cooking, and I think his perspective is important to our culinary world.

I feel like I'm gushing. Chefs do tend to make me that way, but I think unless you've worked in a restaurant, and served 200 tables with a third degree burn, you can't really get it - how much you pour into it; how much it energizes you. For an alternate perspective, Eddie Huang from the Observer offers a much more critical eye. He focuses on the issue of race, but to be fare, Marcus is not born American, and has learned about race relations in the states only through his own experience. I wish Huang had instead looked at what he had to offer. I think he missed Chef Samuelsson's intentions with the Harlem restaurant. He never intended to recreate what Harlem already had, but to tie it into the wider culinary experience, and his own.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

City of Women by David R. Gillham

City of WomenCity of Women by David R. Gillham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Around the World: 37 of 52 (Germany)

I received an eARC of this from the publisher as part of the Penguin First Flights program. I'm happy to be done with it so I can participate in the live author chat this coming week!

At first, I wasn't certain I'd enjoy the book. I've stayed away from most wartime literature, particularly WW2, particularly anything having to do with the Holocaust. This is simply because I was inundated with this kind of lit when I was younger, and while I think it is important, sometimes authors seem to use the worst historical periods as an easy way to get an emotional response from the reader.

That wasn't the case here. People aren't all good or all bad, and I appreciated the sense of reality that the blurry lines and flawed characters brought to the novel.

City of Women is set in Berlin, where the only men around are either 'foreigners' or 'still in short-pants.' Sigrid, the main character, is living with her mother-in-law, who is a Party member, since her husband is fighting on the eastern front. The author does a good job of describing this very bleak setting, where women are making do with very little while being asked to give up their warm clothing.

Sigrid ends up falling in with a woman who is helping Jewish people escape the country, as well as other groups who are in trouble - homosexuals, deserters, etc. Even this is a presented as a very complex issue, with varying reasons for involvement and danger in every direction, including the extra layer of Jewish people who are in cahoots with the Gestapo.

There is somewhat awkward sex in this book, including a lot going on in movie theaters, but it all makes sense when one scene at the beginning comes back around in an unexpected way.