Eat your broccoli

A brief history of seven killings

What’s it about?
Plot-wise, A Brief History of Seven Killings is about Jamaica in the 1970s. It wasn’t a happy place. Two parties wanted to control the government. The CIA worried that the country would become communist, like Cuba. Gangs were aligned with both parties, full of not very nice people. The CIA was giving them guns. And Bob Marley was putting together a peace concert. There was a shooting at Marley’s home two days before the concert. This book posits what happened in the lead-up and in the fall-out to that shooting. Subject-wise, the book illustrates power relationships, what it’s like to live in a third-world country, how the CIA’s meddling in said countries screwed things up, and tries to pick apart why people do what they do.

Why should you read it?
An actual conversation with a friend yesterday:

me: Did you like Wolf Hall?
her: No.
me: Oh. Then you’ll hate this one.

Because, despite the differences between 1970’s Jamaica and Tudor England, the books are largely about the same things: power, how do people get power, how do they keep power. It is dense and not at all brief. It’s also very violent. It, at one point, made me wish I had an English degree so I could properly analyze it. It’s good and important and educational but it is not entertaining. And that’s ok. I’m glad I read it.

Clickbait headline: why is this book so inspiring?

lessons of hope

 

What’s it about?
Lessons of Hope is a gossipy semi-memoir of the NYC’s education chancellor in the 2000s. Joel Klein details his struggles with the powerful NYC teachers union, the reforms they undertook and why, and a bit about what it was like working for Michael Bloomberg. They nudged towards teacher accountability and constantly created smaller schools, sometimes even housing multiple schools in the same building. The other main initiative was creating strong principals who were allowed to be fully in charge of their schools. It was a very interesting read.

Why should you read it?
NYC is a special case. It’s bigger than other districts and has more needs to fill. Not all of the remedies will work for all school districts. But Klein’s passion and energy for better schools serving the children comes through loud and clear and is infectious. He emphasizes the need to prioritize the less well-off students. Children of upper-middle and upper class parents will be fine; poorer students don’t have that luxury. At one point he says, “You have to measure what the school brings to the children, not what the children bring to the school.” It’s easy to do well by bright, well-off children. It’s harder to do well by poorer children; that’s where schools can really make a difference. So: I like Lessons of Hope because of his passion and focus.

How to market your idea

made to stick

 

What’s it about?
Made to Stick is a book about how to get people to remember your idea. The authors presume that the idea is about your company or your cause or a product you make or your marketing message. They posit that there are six things you need to make your idea sticky (e.g., get people to remember it): simplicity, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and it has to tell a story. They give examples and go into detail about what each criteria means.

Why should you read it?
This is actually a re-read. That’s right, Made to Stick is a business book I went back and read again. I’ve been doing a lot of communications work in my volunteer causes – email newsletters, websites, the like – and I wanted to refresh my memory on their criteria to guide me through some of my own writing and presentation. How should we talk about fully funding public education? How should we ask people for money? How should we portray our programs? I remembered it being helpful, but I needed a refresh. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s marketing a small business or organization.

A Spare Scandinavian Winter

black seconds by Karin Fossum

 

What’s it about?
Black Seconds is a mystery. At first, it might just be a disappearance. A young girl has left to ride her bike to the store for a magazine and some candy and never comes home. But as time goes on, it becomes more. It becomes about mistakes and her family and a particular friend she’s made who maybe isn’t entirely right in the head.

Why should you read it?
Black Seconds sounds like it should be about something horrible, but it really isn’t. Or maybe it is, and you just don’t realize it because Karin Fossum’s spare writing treats all her characters with dignity and respect. No one is a caricature, no one’s exaggerated to make a point. It’s very stereotypically Scandinavian – Fossum is Norse, and the book takes place in small-town Norway. I quite enjoyed it.

Surrealism is alive and well

Strange Library by Haruki MurakamWhat’s it about?
The Strange Library, I think, pretty solidly qualifies as surreal. There’s a shepherd who goes to the library, and he’s directed to the basement. He makes his book request to an elderly man in room 107, who brings him his books and then directs him to the reading room, through a maze and eventually to a jail cell. Once there, he’s told to memorize the books in 30 days or else. There’s a man who wears a sheep costume and a beautiful woman with no voice who bring him his meals. It’s odd.

Why should you read it?
If you’re getting shades of Kafka, I wouldn’t be surprised. Naked Lunch also popped into my head whilst reading it. There’s a hero, and he’s going on a quest, but he’s not really sure what’s going on and neither are you. Furthermore, there are some things said that make you question your narrator’s reliability. Could this all potentially be a dream? Yes. Could the hero be crazy? Abso-freaking-lutely. I wouldn’t call The Strange Library entertaining, but it gave my brain a nice little workout.

 

Cleopatra shouldn’t be boring

Hand of Isis

What’s it about?
Honestly, Hand of Isis was a did-not-finish for me. So, this is a summary to the point I finished. There are three daughters of the Pharaoh Ptolemy Auletes: Iras, Charmaine, and Cleopatra. Yes, that Cleopatra. She’s legitimate, the other two are daughters of slaves. They’re all half-sisters, rather than full. The two illegitimate daughters become Cleopatra’s handmaidens and we follow their education and exploits as Pompey the Great first defeats Egypt to take over Cyprus which leads to the downfall of the Pharaoh, which leads to various of Cleopatra’s siblings to take over the throne – she’s the third daughter and fifth child – which leads to a lot of moving around and power struggles.

Why should you read it?
I picked it up because I’m starting a side project about Cleopatra and I thought a fun historical novel would be a good way to get into the subject. However, even though I got about 100 pages into Hand of Isis, once I set it down, I never felt the pull to pick it up again. So it turned into a did-not-finish book because I have so many other books to read. Your milage might vary – it is the third in a series, so you might enjoy it for other reasons. But for me, it was just sort of meh.

Getting into the meat of the mystery

Waistcoats and Weaponry

What’s it about?
Waistcoats & Weaponry follows up on Etiquette & Espionage and Curtsies & Conspiracies by furthering the plot of what exactly the macguffin is for. The macguffin in the series allows machines to transmit signals to other machines – something that could be used for either good or evil in a steampunk society. The mystery is which group is driving its production and what it will use it for. Waistcoats & Weaponry is diving into these questions as well as providing its usual fare of strong girls having adventures.

Why should you read it?
You should read it because the series continues to be a fun piece of work. Some of the class issues in Victorian England are brought to the forefront. Our heroine is flirting with both a viscount and a “sootie” – someone who feeds coal into the steam engines that everything needs to run in a steampunk world. She clearly prefers the sootie, but he knows that they cannot be together precisely because of his station in life. It’s handled very practically, I thought, for something that could be terribly dramatic. Overall, another good read.

It’s not about the running

What I Talk about When I Talk About Running

What’s it about?
Haruki Murakami is a novelist who also runs marathons. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running are his thoughts about amateur long-distance running as they relate to fitness, writing, and life. His prose is careful and elegant and is a delight to read.

Why should you read it?
You should read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running because of its elegance. I would be a runner if my left foot would just heal from plantar fasciitis already; his thoughts about getting older and continuing to run are inspiring. He writes a lot about focus and acceptance that you don’t have the energy that you used to – there’s a whole meditation about talent vs focus and concentration. It applies to more than just running. That said, I think you’ll like the book more if you’re also a runner. It’s definitely worth your time.

Sometimes a strong heroine having an adventure is enough

curtsies & conspiracies

What’s it about?
Curtsies and Conspiracies is about nothing, but that’s ok. I mean, there was a plot – the macguffin from Etiquette & Espionage is elaborated on and there are some interesting embellishments on  vampire culture in alternate steampunk Victorian Britain. But otherwise? It’s still about the setting: a young girl at a finishing school, having adventures.

Why should you read it?
Because it’s the sequel to Etiquette & Espionage and you didn’t want that one to end. That’s why you should read it. You do also learn the identity of the handsome rake the main character danced with at her sister’s coming out ball. That said, this book is definitely a sequel – it doesn’t stand on its own. But it’s a good continuation.

It’s never as black and white as you think it is

beautiful creatures

What’s it about?
Beautiful Creatures is about a very weird girl, Lena Duchannes, in a very conformist small town. It’s told from the perspective of Ethan Wate, a local boy who is instantly taken with her. Lena is magical and will be chosen to be either Light/Good or Dark/Evil on her sixteenth birthday. It’s all or nothing in this particular world. Lena and Ethan use their cunning and her powers to attempt to ensure that she will not go Dark.

Why should you read it?
Honestly, I wouldn’t. It wasn’t a do-not-finish for me, but it’s heavy-handed. Making your main character an instant outsider (like Lena) or an insider-who’s-hiding-his-outsiderness (like Ethan) is a great way to make your literary reader identify with them. It feels like a cliche. And then there’s the whole dark-light magical thing. The world only feels like it’s black and white; it’s really full of gray. The grayness is not as revolutionary as Beautiful Creatures wants it to be. It’s the first in a series I won’t be continuing.