The Red House by Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon’s latest book the Red House is a stream of consciousness novel about two contemporary family of Brits spending a week of vacation together in a house in the English Countryside. At the center is Richard, a doctor and his sister Angela who have some unfinished business at the recent passing of their mother. Each brings to the house their respective spouses and children–three of the four being teens. Put them all together under one roof,  each with their own secrets, have them interact and see what happens. 

Haddon is most famous for his last book–the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a book written from the point of view of an autistic boy who solves a mystery. That book I loved–this one was a bit of a chore.

I started it last June but put it down for several months because it requires a more slow read. I had a hard time tracking the characters and who was speaking or thinking at any time. This is that dang stream of consciousness which I’ve never been a big fan of–apologies to Virginia Woolf fans. There are times when his prose is brilliant and poetic. He can take you from that contemporary setting back across years in one descriptive paragraph such as this one describing the house:

 “The Red House, a Romano-British farmstead abandoned, ruined, plundered for stone, built over, burnt and rebuilt. Tenant farmers, underlings of Marcher lords, a pregnant daughter hidden in the hills, a man who put a musket in his mouth in front of his wife and sprayed half his head across the kitchen wall, a drunken priest who lost the house in a bet over a horse race, or so they said, though they are long gone. Two brass spoons under the floorboards. a 20,000-reichsmark banknote. Letters from Florence cross-written to save paper, now brown and frail and crumpled to pack a wall. Brother, my Lungs are not Goode….”

That paragraph made me pick up the book again and hang in there. There are more passages like that and they made the book worth reading when they surfaced. 

Extreme Productivity: Book Review

I have read the book 4 Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferris a number of times because it has some good tips in it about being effectively productive. But it is also not a very practical book–for instance, I’m not planning on quitting my job anytime soon to take up Argentinean dance nor do I want to completely outsource my life. I also don’t have the luxury of focusing completely on one to two things at the expense of everything else I have in my life (like my child). I’ve read a number of his other books, I’m still a fan, but I regard him as bit of a flim-flam man or a snake oil salesman. His own attention span is short and his work (and writing) is somewhat sloppy, so I continue to dip into his works looking for little nuggets that help.

I am also not a believer in David Allen’s Getting Things Done. Blech. Any time I’ve tried his system I end up with a todo list that is a mile long and so overwhelming as to not be effective at all.

Over the years I’ve cobbled my own system by setting my goals and priorities ala Covey’s First Things First, and a bit of the Pomodoro method thrown in, with a smaller focused “three things that have to be done today” todo list.

Now comes Robertt C. Pozen’s book, Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results and Reduce Your Hours. As someone who has read every productivity book out there, this one is a winner. In some ways, Pozen even has some of the same ideas as Ferris…such as excusing yourself from pointless meetings or focusing your talents toward the 20% of Pareto’s law for maximum return. But Pozen isn’t a snake oil salesman–he is someone extremely accomplished–Harvard Business School Professor, Chairman at Fidelity, maker of Public Policy…and author of numerous books. He is very practical and his productivity is so that he can accomplish more and do it effectively. He also doesn’t have you create endless todo lists. I like his focus on figuring out what you do best, do it, and delegating the rest.

I like this book very much–he spends the requisite amount of time on setting goals and priorities, but then the rest of the book has specifics…like how to read faster and how to write more effectively, then there are chapters that have great advice for planning your overall career. I also liked that Pozen addresses the homefront as well as career finding yourself a stay-at-home spouse or a quality support system. And for someone that you might expect to be a bit old-school, I like that Pozen has embraced the flexible workplace.

 

 

Down in the Hole: the unWired World of H.B. Ogden a Review

Let me persuade you for a minute to watch the HBO series Wire if you haven’t already. If civilization ended and only a few artifacts survive to speak to what was America, I hope they will uncover the entire DVD collection of the Wire. The Wire has been often compared to Dickens–but I think it is on par with Shakespeare. Now give the series a chance. Don’t watch just one episode watch the first three or so and then come back and tell me you didn’t want to finish the series. No, chances are you will devour the entire series and you will want to discuss with me and everyone who your favorite characters are your, your favorite season…you will have a lot to think about and say. And if you don’t believe me then just watch this interview between Bill Moyers and the show’s creator David Simon.

If you are already a fan, and you also have an English lit background then you will enjoy Joy DeLyria and Sean Michael Robinson’s Down in the Hole: the unwired World of H.B. Ogden. This isn’t a funny ha-ha satire, more like a smart, clever way of looking at the Wire. The book takes a look at the Wire as if it were a rediscovered serial novel written by Horatio B. Ogden. My favorite part of this book has to be the illustrations. They take classic scenes from the Wire and recreate them as classic book type illustrations from the 19th century. The book also includes excerpts from the novel–classic scenes recreated in 19th century prose. But what is so smart about this is just reading these scenes again in this perspective shows you how wonderful those scenes really are. My personal favorite is “the excerpt” from Book II Chapter XIX. “All Prologue” which is a recreation of one of my favorite all-time scenes with Omar Little–here’s the clip. The book also has some analytical essays about the Wire, of course written from a 19th century perspective, but the authors really have some great insight into the characters, motivations, themes…

If you are a fan of the Wire make sure you get this book.

Oh, and enjoy this clip from another satire, the Wire: the Musical.

 

Book Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette: A Novel

Little did I suspect when I picked up Microserfs by Douglas Coupland back in the mid nineties that just a few short years later I’d be working for the man myself (or as I like to call him now Uncle Bill). Like Coupland’s novel Generation X, Microserfs was fun and inventive and really captured a moment in time for me. It was about a group of programmers escaping Microsoft in Redmond to move to the bay area and form their own start-up. I distinctly remember the flat food scene–characters slipping a programmer Kraft cheese slices under his office door after he refused to come out.

I did the move myself backwards, moving up from Silicon Valley and nestled in to the Pacific Northwest and into my own office in Redmond. Two things I noticed when I moved here from the Bay Area–that despite the fact that I arrived in 1998 and many of my colleagues back then were millionaires, the parking lot was a lot less flashy than any would have been in Palo Alto, the other that I immediately stopped talking about how much rent I paid. I moved here and I loved the region–the color of the skies and waters, the green of the trees, the granoly people, the left-wing politics that were a given…The fact that when the sun WAS shining for the first time this Californian actually noticed it and appreciated it. And then of course there was the Microsoft culture. Everything you’ve heard and worse. The long hours, the excitement over stock splits, the huge retirement parties for millionaires, the highly smart type A and extremely competitive people who probably move a bit too fast for their own good. And then the things that you probably didn’t know–that the people who work here really are amazing, family-oriented, and with a high rate of Asperger’s. Intense, yes, always intense but maybe a bit mellowed over the years. And even a number of those that retired…returned.

Over the years, starting with Microserfs, I’ve been on the look-out for novels where Microsoft or its executives and/or it’s culture are featured. Someday, maybe, I expect there to be a college lit course on American Literature in the Dot Com and Post-Dot Com Era because there have actually been a number of them. Among the list I would also include:

  • The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman. One of my favorite novels of 2011, the main heroine of the novel is the CEO of a start-up in 1999, while her sister works in an antiquarian bookstore owned by a former Microsoft employee and millionaire. This book has been compared to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and is a wonderful read if you like intelligence. I felt this really did capture what was happening during this time period and the book was nominated for the
  • Options: The Secret Life of Steve Jobs by Daniel Lyons. Lyons, the tech reporter who also anonymously wrote the Fake Steve Jobs blog turned his writing to this novel. Since the book is about Apple, of course both Ballmer and Gates show up as characters in this hilarious love letter to the absurdities of the super rich and the dot com era. I have this one back again in my to read pile to see how it stacks up now after Jobs is gone.

All three of these novels were humorous– the Cookbook Collector maybe a little more subtle. I guess I should revise that college course to the Comic Novel of American Literature in the Dot Com and Post Dot Com Era.

All this is to add one more book to my list–Maria Semper’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette. When I read an article about Semple’s use of Microsoft and Seattle in her book, I immediately downloaded it on my Kindle and started to read it that evening. Microsoft is only a minor character in this book, Bernadette’s husband is a VP in charge of a highly anticipated project. The main focus is on Bernadette, a former award winning architect who has retired to Seattle to raise her daughter and through a series of unfortunate events starts to unravel and then disappears.

I loved this book–because this one captures not only some of Microsoft’s culture, but the whole Pacific Northwest region–the Helicopter Moms, the pretentious school involvement, the Tom Douglas restaurants, Chihuly chandeliers, the horrible drivers, the famous Seattle freeze, which she captures all in this passage:

“My great-grandfather was a fur trapper in Alaska,” Audrey said. “Warren’s great-grandfather bought furs from him. My point is, you come in here with your Microsoft money and think you belong. But you don’t belong.”

She nails the culture at Microsoft–the meeting rooms, the Connector buses, nd something I’ve always wondered WTF at Microsoft–the diminishing numbers of much needed admins.

“Another oddity: there are no assistants. Elgie heads a team of 250, and they all share one assistant. Or admins, as they’re called, accent on the “ad.” In L.A., someone half as important as Elgie would have two assistants, and assistants for their assistants, until every bright son or daughter or anyone west of the 405 was on the payroll. But not at Microsoft. They do everything themselves through specially coded portals.”

And the sky. Semple gets it here:

“I’ll miss the afternoons when I’d go out on our lawn and throw my head back. The sky in Seattle is so low, it felt like God had lowered a silk parachute over us. Every feeling I ever knew was up in that sky. Twinkling, joyous sunlight; airy, giggling cloud wisps; blinding columns of sun. Orbs of gold, pink, flesh, utterly cheesy in their luminosity. Gigantic puffy clouds, welcoming, forgiving, repeating infitetly across the horizon as if between mirrors; and slices of rain, pounding wet misery in the distance now, but soon on us, and in another part of the sky, a black stain, rainless.”

The novel is great fun. The plot was awesome and I even shed a tear over the Runaway Bunny. You can see Maria’s hilarious book trailer for it here.

Book Review: Gone Girl

Is Goodreads changing the way you read books? For me it is becoming my place for word-of-mouth (word-of-review?) place to turn before investing in a newly released book. Gone Girl: A Novel by Gillian Flynn is probably one I might have missed–it has been a while since I read a thriller. But then I started noticing it popping up in my Goodreads updates list with 4 and 5 star reviews. Since I figured half a dozen of my intelligent Goodreads friends couldn’t be wrong I gave it a download to the ole Kindle.

Bam. This book gets interesting fast. A wife is disappears on her fifth anniversary. Did the husband kill her? You hear his side of the story from day one moving forward, and then between his chapters you read her story taken from her diary moving from the time of their meeting forward to the disappearance. Did he do it? I say I haven’t read a thriller in a while, but I used to read a lot of Ann Rule type non-fiction true crime stories in the nineties (before reality TV killed the genre). This book reminded me a lot of those stories, ain’t nothing more fun than trying to figure out the mind of a sociopath (a nod here to one of my favorites by Ann Rule–Small Sacrifices). I also enjoyed the nod to today–the couple are former New York magazine writers who lost their jobs due to the dot com bust and come home to his hometown in Missouri to make a new start. I can’t give you much more than that without reading this thrill ride, so I guess you’ll have to just trust me and pick it up yourself.

Nice to Meet You Papa– A Review of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises

I can admire a writer who is not too flowery and verbose. I have always liked to get to the point rather quickly myself when writing an email or blog post. So I was curious to read Hemingway and check out his style since all I really knew was that it is spare and has spawned some Bad Hemingway short story contests. I know Hemingway was a reporter, a larger than life character, heavy drinker and he killed himself. I know the plots to many of his most famous works. But I hadn’t actually read any of his books.

I was at the library to pick up a few holds and decided to pull up Boxall’s list of 1001 Books and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises rose to the top. It was on hand so I picked I up. So now I’m going to give a shameless plug to a good idea of a Kickstarter project–Start Here. This is a book I want–a list all the great writers you’ve wanted to read with advice on which books to start with.

So I get why this book is famous–lost generation, running of the bulls in Pamplona, bullfights, but it did start slow for me. It took me a while to figure out who was who–Mike, Robert, Jake… especially in running dialogue. The first quarter of the book establishes that these characters are some pretty heavy partiers just kicking around Europe. Then finally some movement when they take off from Paris to Spain. They fish, they drink, they attend the fiesta in Pamplona, they fight, they drink. By the time they hit Pamplona I was hooked. I wanted to know why all these men were in love with Brett. And why Jake the narrator or any of the men put up with her. And then of course she essentially asks that herself with her “I don’t want to be a bitch” speech. It is truly a great story and captures the feeling of a time and place.