Review: Where the Crawdads Sings

Sunday morning sketch of Where the Crawdads Sing book cover

“Marsh is not a swamp. Marsh is a space of flight, where grass grows in water, and water flows into the sky. Slow-moving creeks wander, carrying the orb of the sun with them to the sea, and long-legged birds lift with unexpected grace–as though not built to fly–against the roar of a thousand snow geese.”

Delia Owens, first lines of Where the Crawdads Sing

Abandoned by her family, Kya Clark, lives alone in the North Carolina Marsh. Kya learns to survive and thrive on her own. This is that classic fantasy tale of the wolf-boy who survives on his own in the wilderness, apart from man and society. Or really, it is the tale of the witch–the woman who lives apart and is shunned and ignored by the community. Kya has a love of nature and is a collector of shells and feathers. As with any fable of the siren, two young men from town are drawn to her with tragic results. The town will sit in judgment of her.

Where the Crawdads Sing will be the book of the summer. I had hoped to wait until my copy at the library came up (currently number 1290 on 382 copies), but then I passed an autographed copy on a table at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park and had to pick it up. I decided to read a few pages, and then the book drew me in and I read it over the weekend.

Kya Clark is one of the most fascinating, strong characters created that I’ve read in a long time. Delia Owens makes her crafty, interesting, and yet always so wounded and shaped by the isolation and tragedy in her life. Despite that, Kya finds her own purpose. She dedicates herself to learning the world of the marsh around her. There are other characters (all interesting in their own right) who give her gifts–they teach her to fish, read, and eke out a living. In the words of Kya, “nudging her to care for herself, not just offering to care for her.”

I also like the way the book was plotted. There is a murder mystery at the front of the book, and the book jumps between the time before and the time after one of the town’s young men is found at the bottom of the Fire Tower. The stories move forward until they meet and merge.

There is also the naturalist piece to the book as well as poetry. Owens herself is a wildlife scientist and the author of several non-fiction books that sound equally fascinating to this, her first novel. As I mentioned, Kya is a collector and a naturalist. She’ll go far with this–but I don’t want to spoil that. The book also contains poetry, some Dickinson, and one other regional poet. The book reminded me a bit of one of my favorite collection of short stories, The Shell Collector, by Anthony Doerr. Others have compared her to Barbara Kingsolver. I hope to read more from Owens.

100 Diagrams That Changed the World: Book Review

As an Infographic nut I love this wonderful little book, Scott Christianson’s 100 Diagrams That Changed the World. Each diagram includes a photo or reproduction starting with the Cave Drawings done 30,000 years ago in France all the way to a diagram of the iPod. In between you’d be quite surprised to learn that the first bar chart was created by William Playfair in 1786 (or at least I was). Or that the first exploded view diagram was created by Mariano Taccola way back around 1450. 

I was very pleased to find not only the expected entries by da Vinci and Descartes, but a diagram from my personal hero Ben Franklin for his bifocals. I was surprised to learn that Bacteria was first diagramed by Leeuwenhoek back in 1683. 1683! There are some interesting call-outs like for Ikea’s Flat-Pack Furniture (1956) which makes me want to curse when I read it, and even Carl Sagan’s Pioneer Placque which shipped out into space in 1972.

My only beef with this book lays in the design itself. Seriously–what is up lately with graphic designers not being able to design for print? Each entry has a couple introductory sentences which are printed in such a light gray as to be unreadable in the evening by a person over their forties. It has to be readable folks! That is the point!

 

My Favorite Reads in 2012

Of the one hundred and ten books I read in 2012–here are my personal favorites and the ones I am most likely to recommend.

Fiction:

Where’d You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Winner of the most fun fictional read about Seattle and Microsoft.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters

Winner of most fascinating use of Hollywood and Italian scenery.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Winner of the I can’t turn the pages fast enough to find out what happens next.

IQ84 by Haruki Murakami

Winner of WTF is this book? But damn it’s good.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Winner of I love this book but hate the ending.

Business and Productivity:

Extreme Productivity by Robert C. Pozen

Winner of most likely to use these productivity tips.

Memoir

A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents and Ourselves by Jane Gross

Winner of everyone with a parent over the age of 60 needs to buy and read this book now.

Siberia Bound: Chasing the American Dream on Russia’s Wild Frontier by Alexander Blakely

Winner of Economic Lessons wrapped up in a heartwarming memoir.

Art:

Moby-Dick in Pictures by Matt Kish

Winner of I Saw Your Website but Had to Own the Book No Matter What the Price.

Science:

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011 Edited by Mary Roach

Winner of Best Anthology Collection of Stories.

This is Service Design Thinking: Book Review

This is Service Design Thinking was designed to be a much needed textbook on the new interdisciplinary approach to designing services. If you work at all in in high tech you would be well served by reading this book–but service design touches almost any business.

The content is good–I especially enjoyed the middle sections that describe a number of methodologies for designing services. I’ve worked with a few myself including personas, idea generation (SWOT and mindmapping), agile development, storytelling, and my personal favorite–business model canvas.  (Damn, I need to make sure all that is on my LinkedIn profile!) I also enjoyed some of the included in-depth articles on deep service design thinking. The essay on “Integrating Service Design Thinking and Motivational Psychology” by Fergus Bisset and “Service Design and Biophila” by Renato Troncon are worth the price of admission.

A shout-out now if you want to see world-class design affecting real people in action. Watch this video by Krista Donaldson and the folks at D-Rev.

So now what I didn’t really like about this textbook… And mind you, I’m coming at this from an experienced book editor in high tech. The book was crowd-sourced but I think lacks a strong lead editor. It is a collection of material and I guess that is okay for a textbook like this, but I prefer having one expert guide me through the work of others than sifting through myself.

And the book was so over-designed as to be distracting. It has a number of bells and whistles–color-coded sections, ribbon bookmarks, a poster, pre-highlights and so many icons there is a map to the icons in the back. All of this is rather distracting. I hate having my books pre-highlighted for me. If I find it important, I will highlight it. I can do that. I kind of disagreed with whoever made some of the highlighting decisions.

I hope there will be a second edition because this is a good book, but it needs the hand of a firm editor to take it to the next level for me.

But I will keep the book on my shelf and will probably check out other titles that are referenced.

And if you work on services– do take a look at the Business Model Canvas. If I were to pick one method over the others that would be it for me. I can learn so much about how a business works by taking it through the canvas just on my own.

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.