Action Inquiry by Bill Torbert – I haven't read much in the last several months, and I struggled through this book; the writing is dry but the content is good - and I'll re-read it when I get a chance. It's about creating an environment in which people and organizations learn and develop.
Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert – Our imaginations are what distinguish people from other animals and enable us to create visions/predictions for our futures, and what we think would make us happy. Gilbert describes how our minds work - and how incredibly bad our accuracy is in these predictions. This is a fascinating, very easy read.
The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley – I picked up this book because I liked the title, and decided to buy it as soon as I saw the intro was written by W.H. Auden. Excellent decision… I was blown away by this book. Eiseley is a naturalist, anthropologist, scientist, environmentalist, historian, poet (and more), and his writing is fantastic! This is a collection of his favorite essays (and a few poems). He describes the natural world with wonder, beauty and spirituality. I read this book slowly, savoring every sentence.
Beyond the Deep by William Stone & Barbara am Ende – This book is about a 1994 expedition to explore the Sistema Huautla, a cave system in Mexico, which – at ~35 miles long and almost 5,000 ft. deep - is the deepest cave in the Americas, and the 5th deepest in the world (as of 2002, when the book was published.) Think of mountaineering expeditions – but underground. There were 44 people on this expedition, who carried massive amounts of equipment into the caves, while doing some pretty hairy rappelling in and around waterfalls. They also spent significant amounts of time route-finding through flooded tunnels using a technology Stone had invented to allow them to recycle their own breath (rather than hauling huge numbers of scuba tanks with them.) The one “camp” sounded like it was hammocks hanging off bolts in the cave walls above an underground river. (Not a good place to be in a flash flood!). Stone and Ende lived underground for 44 days during this expedition. This is not something that’s on my list to do - but the book was interesting and engaging.
In Over Our Heads by Robert Kegan – A fascinating view on developmental psychology. Kegan describes the evolution of mental models/capacities of children, adolescents, and adults, and the dynamic relationship between capacities and cultural demands. The writing is pretty esoteric and academic at times. In the preface, he describes telling his father when his first book was translated into German and Korean. His father responded, “Great! Now when will it be translated into English?” Yeah, there’s still some of that going on, but in general, he used good examples to illustrate his points and the model he describes is definitely thought-provoking. I’ve already gone back and re-read several sections of this book – some parts more than once - and I suspect it’s a book I’ll be returning to for a while.
Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama – Since he’s by far the current front-runner for my vote in next year’s election, I decided to read Obama’s first book – written long before he was running for President. The book is more personal than I expected. As expected, though, it’s very well-written, thoughtful and insightful – and in the “discovering yourself” category, Obama definitely had a lot more complexity to deal with than most people, and wrote about it in a compelling way. But the last quarter of the book - about his pre-law school trip to Kenya - really dragged. Earlier in the book, the detail he included was interesting and provided texture to his insights; in the last section, it was just too much detail and was…. well, boring. Overall, though, I enjoyed it. And his other book is already on the pile of books next to my bed.
The Power of TED* (*The Empowerment Dynamic) by David Emerald - This one almost landed in the reject pile, but – although there were several things I didn’t like about this book – I did like the simple concept. The book provides alternatives to the The Karpman Drama Triangle roles of Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer - negative roles driven by fear. The alternatives offered are Creator, Challenger and Coach - positive roles driven by passion in pursuit of a vision/goal, which create a different approach and energy. The concept is very simple and could’ve been presented in an article. It definitely doesn’t need a whole book. And I don’t like fable-style books, so I didn’t like the way it was written. The concept, though, has broad applicability in our culture where a ridiculous number of people/groups seek out and claim victimhood.
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey – After about two weeks of gray, dreary weather, including the worst ice-storm in Austin history - 3 days of temps below freezing and the city literally shut down under a coat of ice (yes, 3 days of temps in the 20s and an inch or two of ice is considered an “ice-storm” around here…. Gotta love winter in Texas :-) – I wanted to read about somewhere warm and sunny. What better choice than reading about the desert and canyonlands of SE Utah - one of my favorite spots on earth. I read Desert Solitaire years ago, while on a 4-week backpacking trip in that part of the country, and - while there’s something special about reading a book about wherever you are - I enjoyed it (almost) as much this time around. Abbey says that his intent is “not imitation but evocation” and in this he’s very successful. He captures the slickrock desert and canyons beautifully, including a great chapter about rafting down Glen Canyon (which was drowned when Glen Canyon Dam was built.) He writes that “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit…” and while he’s somewhat excessive, he’s not entirely wrong in his railing against the “improvements” that the Park Service has made - but which diminish the wilderness. Definitely a great read.
Full Circle by Luis Sepulveda - Another book I started before my trip to Chile… An engaging travelog by a Chilean novelist who spent 3 years in a Chilean prison as a political prisoner and was exiled in the mid-70’s. His travel adventures in South America – and especially those in Patagonia – and the stories about the very colorful characters he met are very entertaining. This is a fun, light read.
Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers – After living in Holland for several years, publishing 4 books, and breaking up with his long-time girlfriend, Powers (the character) returns to the US to be a visiting writer at the midwestern college he’d attended. He gets involved in a project that culminates in an advanced Turing Test. Working with a cognitive neurologist who’s developing a computer neural network, Powers trains this system (named Helen) on the Great Books curriculum that he’d had to study as a grad student. This primary story line is classic Powers – it’s engaging and thought-provoking and very smart.
He simultaneously tells the story of his relationship with the girlfriend he left in Holland, and about a grad student he has a bizarre crush on. These parts of the book were less engaging - though I enjoyed the autobiographical aspects about the writing of his previous books.
As usual, Powers' writing is great. A few of my favorite lines/paragraphs:
What was I supposed to do for the rest of my life? The rest of the afternoon alone seemed unfillable. I went shopping. As always, retail left me with an ice-cream headache. (p32)
Though Taylor, I discovered how a book both mirrored and elicited the mind’s unreal ability to turn inward upon itself. (p141)
It occurred to me: awareness no more permitted its own description than life allowed you a seat at your own funeral. Awareness trapped itself inside itself. The function of consciousness must be in part to dummy up and shape a coherence from all competing, conflicting subsystems that processed experience. By nature, it lied. Any rendition we might make of consciousness would arise from it, and was thus about as reliable as the accused serving as sole witness for the prosecution. (p 218)
I picked up an old microscope at a flea market in Verona… I showed him where to put his eye. I watched him, thinking, this is how we attach to existence. We look through awareness’s tube and see the swarm at the end of the scope, taking what we come upon there for the full field of sight itself. (p226)
Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov – This book starts: “Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.” The story includes some twists; the characters are great; the writing is very good – though not the amazing writing of later works. You know exactly where the story’s going, but it’s a great read to get there.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery - What a wonderful little book! I've read this book twice before - years ago in French and more recently in Spanish. In both cases, it took me forever to read the book and I was so focused on figuring out what each word/sentence meant that I didn't even remember the story. This time I read an English translation (2000, by Richard Howard,) with "restored original art", and I loved it! I'll definitely be re-reading this one periodically. And I immediately pulled a couple of other Saint-Exupery books off my bookshelf to re-read.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon – I finally got around to reading this book that everyone raved about when it was published - and it turned out to be a great start for 2007. Written from the perspective of an autistic 15-yr old, it’s interesting, clever and funny in a very gentle way. Definitely worth reading.
The Book of Fate by Brad Meltzer – One of the better airplane books I’ve read in a while. A young aide is injured during an assassination attempt on the President, and a close friend of the President’s is killed. Eight years later, the aide sees the supposedly dead friend of the President – and then (of course), he has to figure out what’s going on. It’s engaging and entertaining.
The Hanged Man's Song by John Sandford – I’ve read and enjoyed most of Sandford’s ‘Prey” series, so I bought this to read on the beach in Mexico. This is one of his series with a main character named Kidd, who’s a programmer/hacker. Kidd finds a friend brutally murdered, and his laptop (containing a lot of potentially harmful information about a lot of people) is missing, so (of course) Kidd and his wise-cracking hacker friends have to go after the murderer, find the laptop and revenge their friend’s murder. It contains some fun MacGuyver-like creativity related to hacking and breaking and entering. Overall, it’s entertaining and light… Just right for the beach.
Prior Bad Acts by Tami Hoag – After giving up on PG Wodehouse (see reject pile for that story), I was looking for some “good” trash to read, and this paperback was right at the door when I walked into Barnes & Noble. It’s a decent airplane book – gory murder, liberal judge who’s in danger, wise-cracking cops, and even the (completely expected) twist toward the end. It’s a quick, entertaining and completely undemanding read.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams – I’ve started this book several times over several years, but never actually finished it until now. It’s silly, amusing, funny and sometimes very witty. I enjoyed it. (And now I know where Alta Vista’s Babel Fish got its name. Cool!)
Strange Conversation by Kris Delmhorst - This is a CD, not a book - but fits the literary theme because the lyrics for the songs are either poems or inspired by poems by Browning, Eliot, Whitman, and others. I heard about this CD through an interview with the singer/songwriter on NPR a few months ago, and this weekend, I finally got around to buying it. And I really enjoyed it. The music is folksy, but has good variety, and I like most of the poems - especially the Whitman. It's a very fun CD.