HOW TO START A FIRERegular readers of this blog know I am a HUGE fan of Lisa Lutz, the author of the Spellman File series and Heads You Lose (with David Hayward). So it should come as no surprise that she has once again wowed me.

What’s different this time is HOW she did it.

HOW TO START A FIRE is ostensibly a novel about three women who meet in college and continue, on and off, to remain friends into adulthood. But it is also a mystery novel, a study in human relations, and yet another brilliant Lutz example of how to write effective snappy dialogue. The story is told forward and backward, bouncing around from the late 1990s up till almost the present day, and the organization is simply brilliant.

It leaves traditional beginning-to-end novels in the dust.

Posted in Crime, Fiction, Humor, Mystery, Novel, Relationships, Storytelling, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

THE BOYS IN THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown

THE BOYS IN THE BOATI admit, I avoided reading this book for many months even though it received glowing reviews. I had very little interest in crew (well, except for the handsome guys at college whose training regimens and resultant physiques left me gobsmacked), and anyway, we already knew how it ended: they won gold at the 1936 Olympics. Where was the suspense in that?

I’m not going to lie. It took a few pages to get into it. I wasn’t sure why I should keep reading. Then I met Joe Rantz, whose humble, heartbreaking story epitomized the word “underdog.” Abandoned by his father and the whole rest of his family, Joe was forced to survive on his own during the Depression while the rest of his family lived nearby and completely avoided him.

Even though I knew Joe would triumph, I wanted to see how he and the other boys pulled it together. For many pages, it seemed impossible that they would. I had already seen the gold medal in the Prologue, and still, I couldn’t believe it.

This is a great story of courage and guts. Very poignant.

Posted in Biography, History, Inspirational, Nonfiction, Sports, The Great Depression | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

COLUMBINE by Dave Cullen

COLUMBINEApril 20, 2015: Sixteen years ago today, two teenage boys conducted a violent assault on their high school, murdering twelve students and a teacher and wounding dozens of others before turning their guns on themselves.

Dave Cullen’s COLUMBINE needs no subtitle. With every new school shooting—sadly, the list continues to grow—the name comes up. Many people have seen the images of students fleeing with arms raised in the air to signal their innocence, police cars and ambulances surrounding the building, and afterwards, parents hugging their children as though they would never let them go. Many of us watched CNN or read the newspaper afterwards and thought, How did this happen? Why did they do it?

Rumors and speculation emerged immediately: they had been bullied, they had been members of something called “The Trench Coat Mafia,” they had been gay…. The truth, revealed in this painstakingly-researched comprehensive account, took ten years to reach publication. In 2009, when this book came out (I finally picked it up yesterday and finished reading it this morning: it is that engrossing), it showed that most of the rumors were wrong. Also, some people had known enough to possibly prevent what happened. And some people had covered that up.

Cullen answers many questions, and while the first two are important, he also addresses one that is equally pressing: How do people live through and get over such a terrible tragedy? The balance in this book is that it is not just about the murderers; it is also about the survivors.

My favorite was Patrick Ireland, still limping at graduation when he gave his valedictory address, who said, “When I fell out the window I knew somebody would catch me. That’s what I need to tell you: that I knew the loving world was there all the time.”

COLUMBINE explores unthinkable evil, but it also tells a story about resilience, compassion, and love.

Posted in Crime, For EDUCATORS, For PARENTS, History, Investigative journalism, Nonfiction | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment


THE SOCIAL PROFIT HANDBOOKFrom its very title, THE SOCIAL PROFIT HANDBOOK by David Grant challenges the status quo. We should rename “not-for-profit” organizations as “social profit” organizations—because, after all, isn’t that what they are designed to do, benefit society?

Yes. Exactly.

As the former president and CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and now a national consultant who works with people and organizations that have a social or educational mission, Grant is well-positioned to write this book, subtitled “The Essential Guide to Setting Goals, Assessing Outcomes, and Achieving Success for Mission-Driven Organizations.” He has extensive experience in facilitating sessions that help organizations wrestle with strategic-planning and other burning topics, and this book will absolutely be a handy tool for many people I know.

In fewer than 200 pages but with ample concrete examples, he explains how “backwards-design” thinking (ala Wiggins and McTighe*) and the process of developing rubrics can clarify what we value and how we will know if we are succeeding in our mission. Whether you are on a nonprofit—excuse me, social profit—board or an employee of one, you can use this rubric-building approach to build consensus and set (or reset) the norms for your organization.

I am excited to dig in!

*See Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2005).

Posted in Change, Education Reform, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, Nonfiction, Nonprofit boards, School leadership, Self-help, Social entrepreneurs | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACKWhen I finally picked up ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (originally published in 2010), I did not know what to expect. The buzz around the Netflix series, which I have not yet viewed, seems to suggest high drama, machinations, and lots of attitude. But this is one of the most compassionate books I have ever read. It provides a very human look into the life of a woman who makes some bad decisions and later pays the price: a year in a minimum-security prison. Though of course we know how it ends (she is released and writes a book), the book pulses with suspense because like the narrator, we do not know what to expect from one moment to the next. Although certain aspects of prison life are predictable, many depend on human variables—some surprisingly uplifting and heartening, some humiliating.

If you know anyone whose life has been touched by incarceration—directly or indirectly—Piper Kerman captures not only what life is like on the “inside” but also some of the absurdities that land people there and the consequences for their family and friends.

And given that 2.3 million people are locked up annually, those consequences are vast.

Posted in Anthropology, Change, Crime, Inspirational, Memoir, Nonfiction, Relationships | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

GHETTOSIDE by Jill Leovy

GHETTOSIDEIn order to solve a problem, you must first unpack it. What is really going on? What are the causes, as opposed to the signs and symptoms? Too often, perhaps, we leap to conclusions without sufficiently exploring the depths of a problem’s causes. And sometimes there are multiple causes, and we weigh some more heavily than others, which in turn affects how we devise solutions.

This may all seem very vague and abstract until you consider, for example, the homicide rate in Los Angeles County. Which, for a whole variety of reasons (emotional, psychological, financial…), is a huge problem.

In GHETTOSIDE, subtitled A True Story of Murder in America, Jill Leovy presents both a case study of what happened when a Los Angeles detective’s son was killed and an exploration of the myriad challenges for citizens and law enforcers in that environment. One cause of the high murder rate is that citizens believe they cannot trust the legal system to protect them, so they take the law into their own hands.

Leovy does not suggest easy answers. But the questions she raises are profound and worth considering.

Posted in Crime, Environment, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, History, Investigative journalism, Nonfiction, Poverty | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson

LIFE AFTER LIFEThe idea of immortality is, to say the least, not new. To consider some popular media examples: in the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character, an arrogant weatherman, is forced to live the same day over and over until he gets it right. In the more recent ABC TV show Forever, the lead is a man who in the past two centuries has “died” dozens of times but for some reason keeps getting reborn as his astonishingly handsome 34 year-old self. I don’t know why it keeps happening, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t repeatedly happy to see him.

In the novel LIFE AFTER LIFE, Kate Atkinson offers us Ursula Todd, who is born in England in 1910, then either dies (choked by the umbilical cord) or lives (the doctor makes it through the snow to snip the cord) and dies later (falls off a roof), or lives, then dies a different way. Essentially we get to see variations on the theme of her life and the lives of everyone who comes into her orbit, including but not limited to her family, various friends and lovers, and Eva Braun and Adolf Hitler.

Atkinson creates the impression that we can rewind the tape and try again. A lousy marriage to an abusive man can be erased, replaced by first one lover (an admiral) then another (an architect), then back to the admiral. It might sound fantastical, but it actually works. Her genre-busting approach makes me wonder if we will see more texts like this in the future. I feel as though she’s revealed a new path, but left us more to explore.

And all along, it is fascinating to consider the parallel lives we might have led if we’d made different decisions.

Posted in Fiction, Historical fiction, Magical Realism, Novel, WWII | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel

STATION ELEVENThis post-apocalyptic novel was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award. Which made me think: If this was a finalist, I absolutely must read the winner. It is richly layered, raising and beautifully answering the question, What if the world as we know it fell apart?

Seen through the eyes of several sympathetic characters whose lives overlap in curious ways before and after a 99.9% effective epidemic, it shows why, in the words of a Star Trek Voyager episode, “survival is insufficient.”

Beyond food, water, and shelter, what do we think we need? And what do we actually need? STATION ELEVEN asks these questions and more.

Posted in Fiction, National Book Award Finalist, Novel, Post-apocalyptic fiction | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment


THE PAYING GUESTSThis historical novel by Sarah Waters is inviting, seductive, mysterious, extremely attentive to detail, and densely stuffed with dilemmas about desire.

The story begins with deceptive simplicity: a British mother and her only surviving relation, her daughter, are unable to make ends meet, so they take in a married couple as “paying guests.”

Very quickly, things become complicated. Then: more complicated.

I won’t spoil it. Enjoy.

Posted in Fiction, Historical fiction, Novel | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

EUPHORIA by Lily King

EUPHORIAMost works of fiction include a disclaimer about how any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental blahblahblah, but in the case of EUPHORIA, Lily King omits that stock epithet because in fact her novel is based on three real people: Margaret Mead, her second husband Reo Fortune, and her third husband Gregory Bateson.

The book is an utterly fascinating account of how Nell Stone (Mead) and Andrew Bankson (Bateson) meet and fall in love. Although it’s clear that King did months and months of research—from the detailed descriptions, we learn precisely what it was like to be an anthropologist living among natives in New Guinea in the 1930s—it reads like a great novel. And if you know what actually happened, you are in for some surprises. Unlike Paula McLain’s THE PARIS WIFE, which remains faithful to the facts of Hemingway’s marriage to Hadley Richardson, Lily King takes a “What if?” approach to the original situation and creates an equally plausible alternative ending.

The result is memorable, and it made me glad that I had a cold and had to stay in bed all day.

Posted in Anthropology, Fiction, Novel, Relationships | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment