THE POWER OF MOMENTS by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Not long after I turned 14, I was hired to do salad prep at a local restaurant. On my first day, a young man probably in his early 20s was assigned to train me. He picked up a knife and began chopping mushrooms so rapidly that the knife was a blur. In no time, he’d created a sizable pile of sliced mushrooms. It looked so easy. “See?” he said.

I’ll never forget what happened next. As I reached for the knife, our boss—a rotund, jovial man—suddenly appeared at my side and intercepted the knife. “I just want you to remember something,” he said. He looked me straight in the eye. “This knife is very, very, VERY sharp. VERY sharp. So be careful.”

He set the knife on the cutting board and walked away. Besides having probably saved me a trip to the ER, in that moment he also showed that he cared and that he was truly in charge: two very important messages to send to a new employee.

This moment is exactly the kind of thing the Heath brothers explore in their latest book, THE POWER OF MOMENTS. Subtitled Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, it reminds us that we can have more impact by being more purposeful about the impressions we create, and it explains how.

No matter what line of work you’re in, this book provides a large pile of sliced mushrooms and a very sharp knife for thought.

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Posted in Change, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, For PARENTS, Nonfiction, Self-help, Social psychology | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THANKS, OBAMA by David Litt

I recognize that the title of this book might discourage some portion of the population from picking it up, but that would be a missed opportunity. David Litt’s entertaining memoir, subtitled My Hopey, Changey White House Years, is more than a story of a Democratic presidential speechwriter. It’s a humorous, self-deprecating account of a young man who finds himself in a situation where he needs to grow up and deal with a challenging job.

Litt captures perfectly the perspective of a recent college grad who fell in love with then-candidate Obama and dove into the campaign headfirst. Though not immediately hired after the election, he eventually secures a small role, and works hard to climb the ladder. Though this may sound a bit mundane, it is actually fascinating because along the way he pulls back the curtain to reveal the inner workings of the Obama White House. Even if you’re a devoted fan of the TV show The West Wing (or maybe especially if you are), the details will surprise and engage you.

As a writer reading about another writer’s life, I found Litt’s description of his work both painfully honest and amusing. It’s hard to pick a favorite part, but this “translation” of his boss’s “unique dialect of one-line e-mails” in which he delivers feedback on Litt’s drafts would be near the top:

My edits. Unmitigated disaster. Pure garbage. Rewrite.
Here are my edits. I disliked this, but I didn’t completely hate it.
Some edits. This was acceptable, but only by the smallest possible margin.
Good job. Good job.

In some ways, though we might not have been in the White House, we have all been there.

 

Posted in Humor, Memoir, Nonfiction, Politics, Writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

RED NOTICE by Bill Browder

I admit I took my eye off the Russia ball for a while. For years, actually. Once we signed nuclear disarmament treaties with them (or first with the “Soviet Union” then “Russia”), I thought, OK, so they’re not going to blow us up; who else should we worry about? But recently—well, for obvious reasons—that has changed.

When I heard about Bill Browder’s memoir/thriller about his involvement in Russia, it seemed like a good opportunity to learn a thing or two.

This book is subtitled A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice, and it is All That and More. Browder was one of the first major investors in Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and he made a fortune. Until he didn’t.

I don’t want to spoil anything. You’ve probably heard of the Russian oligarchs and allegations of their corruption. Bill Browder needed to hire an attorney to help him fight this corruption, and he hired the best one he could find, a truly upstanding man named Sergei Magnitsky.

If you’ve heard of the “Magnitsky Act,” you might know where this is going. But even if you do, this book deserves your attention. It is an astounding story, with implications for our future.

Posted in Biography, Crime, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, History, Investigative journalism, Memoir, Nonfiction, Russia | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Z: A NOVEL OF ZELDA FITZGERALD by Therese Anne Fowler

The beauty of a good book is that it makes you want to read more. Or write something. Or both. Therese Anne Fowler’s Z, a fictionalized account of Zelda Fitzgerald’s life, is such a book. You will want to read more about the Fitzgeralds or write a story of your own. Or think, Maybe I should write a novel.

If you’ve read anything by or about F. Scott Fitzgerald (especially The Great Gatsby) or Ernest Hemingway (especially A Moveable Feast, his memoir about his time in Paris, often with the Fitzgeralds; or The Sun Also Rises, a novel which feels like a thinly-disguised memoir), you probably already have some preconceptions about the Fitzgeralds—e.g., her penchant for wild behavior and his penchant for booze. They clearly lived flashy lives, but it’s unclear who derailed whom more. As Ms. Fowler notes in the Acknowledgments, “Where the Fitzgeralds are concerned, there is so much material with so many differing views and biases that I often felt as if I’d been dropping into a raging argument between what I came to call Team Zelda and Team Scott.” This book aims to tell Zelda’s side of the story, and I must say, it comes across as entirely plausible. And it makes me want to read her writing, which was sometimes published as “co-written” with her husband, even though it wasn’t, to garner a bigger paycheck.

Was Zelda an ambitious woman? Yes. A crazy woman? Maybe. Maybe not.

If you’ve read Flapper (which I blogged about here) or The Paris Wife (ditto), I promise: you will love this book.

(PS: Many thanks to Molly Wagner for this recommendation!)

Posted in 1920s, Fiction, For EDUCATORS, Historical fiction, Novel, Writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

THE LEAVERS by Lisa Ko

Sometimes, especially when you’re in pain, it’s hard to accept help.

Lisa Ko’s engrossing first novel, THE LEAVERS, is about that phenomenon—and also about trust and betrayal, fear and longing, adoption, illegal immigration, mother-son relationships, feeling lost and uncertain, trying to find your place in the world, and trying to figure out what to do with your life. Yep, that pretty much sums it up. Plenty to work with, and Ms. Ko does a great job of interweaving the lead points of view to capture at least two sides of a difficult situation: a Chinese mother who disappears on her American-born son, versus the son (who misses her) who ends up getting adopted by two professors—a married couple—who earnestly want to help him.

This is a book you won’t soon forget.

(Many thanks to Judy Wilson for the recommendation!)

Posted in Adoption, Fiction, For EDUCATORS, Illegal Immigration, Novel, Social Justice | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

RULES OF CIVILITY by Amor Towles

When a friend recommended the new novel by Amor Towles, GENTLEMAN OF MOSCOW, I did a little research and discovered that his first novel, RULES OF CIVILITY, received high praise, too. Let’s start with the paperback, I thought.

RULES OF CIVILITY is, on one level, a delicious story about a young woman in Manhattan in the late 1930s, doing whatever she can to climb career and social ladders, hobnobbing and trying to fit in with people who were born into wealth. It is also a bit of a mystery novel because it is told in flashback, and this woman’s life revolves to some degree around a man who—we learn in the first few pages—somehow went from being super-rich to down on his luck. The plot shows us how.

It’s a fascinating setting, New York City at the tail end of the Great Depression but before World War II—a place we’re familiar with and a time period we perhaps haven’t spent as much time thinking about. While Europeans were fighting for their lives, we were not involved yet. We had our own little dramas. This novel captures that notion beautifully.

Posted in 1930s, Fiction, Historical fiction, Novel | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

US by David Nicholls

The novel US is based on what movie directors call a “high-concept” premise: shortly before a husband and wife take their son on a multi-week European vacation, the wife informs her husband that she thinks she wants to leave him. But she still wants to take the trip.

The key word is “thinks.” She’s not sure. Therein lies the suspense. Toss in the story of how these two people met and fell in love, witty dialogue, and enticing descriptions of vibrant tourist attractions in Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Barcelona, and Madrid, and you’ve got a great 396-page escape.

More seriously, though, this book explores the question: “What does ‘Happily Ever After’ really mean?” Anyone who has seriously entertained the notion of marriage has probably given this some thought. So, clearly, has David Nicholls.

I won’t spoil the ending except to say that it is plausible and satisfying.

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

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by Elizabeth Strout

In Washington, DC for a conference this week, I of course made a pilgrimage to one of my favorite spots on the planet, Kramerbooks, where they display most of the books with the covers facing up or out. There’s nothing better than a delicious buffet of books. So many tempting choices! I didn’t really need a book. I had brought one along for the train ride, and—let’s face it—left a dozen piled on my bedside table, awaiting my return. So I limited myself to just one.

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by Elizabeth Strout, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of OLIVE KITTERIDGE (which I also loved), calls to mind the first sentence of MOBY DICK. In a deceptively simple way, it both echoes “Call me Ishmael” and reinterprets the line through the voice of a woman who is somewhat timid, somewhat brave, and somewhat matter-of-fact. The narrator’s voice is clean, spare, and factual. One chapter begins, for example, “Until I was eleven years old, we lived in a garage.” The older Lucy recalls both her childhood and a time when, as an adult, she spent an extended time in a hospital and her estranged mother came and stayed at her side for a few days.

As you read it, see if you feel the same way I did: like you are being confided in by someone who can’t say everything, but says enough.

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ELIGIBLE by Curtis Sittenfeld

I held off on reading ELIGIBLE for a few years because I adore Jane Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and I was afraid that this book, a modernization of that classic novel, could not possibly compare. So why bother?

I was wrong. In fact, I love Curtis Sittenfeld’s adaptation so much that it has made me want to re-read the original. And I hope someone is making a movie out of this.

I don’t want to spoil it, but here are a few tidbits: it’s 2013; the Bennets live in Cincinnati; Mr. Darcy is Dr. Darcy, a neurosurgeon; and Chip Bingley is a doctor/star of Eligible, a reality-TV show suspiciously similar to The Bachelor. And the banter among Liz and Jane and the rest of the siblings is priceless.

I think Ms. Austen would be delighted.

Posted in Classics, Fiction, For EDUCATORS, Humor, Novel | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

 

In the opening scene of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s AMERICANAH, the main character has to travel from Princeton to Trenton because no one in Princeton knows how to braid her hair. And it goes on from there. Following Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who falls in love, moves to America, then moves back, this book uses the perspective of a highly observant outsider, a “non-American born” African, to shed light on what it is like to be black in America (and in Great Britain and Nigeria), and it does so with insight, humor, and attitude.

Though focused on race relations, this book is also more broadly about finding your place in the world. On some level, all of the characters struggle with this issue.

As we all do.

Posted in Fiction, For EDUCATORS, Novel, Race relations | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment