Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Lost Symbol

Like The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons, The Lost Symbol is action packed and a quick, thrilling read. I still like Angels and Demons the best out of the three, although I really enjoyed The Lost Symbol as well. The Lost Symbol and Angels and Demons are clearly easier to read and enjoy as a Christian since The DaVinci Code has quite obvious problems that take away from the experience even though I still enjoyed the book. The Lost Symbol is not anywhere close to being as controversial, and actually may be more controversial in the fact that he doesn't attack the Masons instead of attacking them. He seems to have come to appreciate the Masons and their support for learning and knowledge. The plot centered around ancient knowledge and how we use so little of our brain power. This is tied to something called noetic theory, which is a theory about using our brain power and intellect to it's fullest potential and researches things like using your mind to change matter and if we have a soul. It sounds completed insane at first in the book, but then it all starts to actually sound really intriguing and made me want to read more about it. One of the items they research is the power of prayer and how having a large group of people focus on something mentally can actually influence outcomes. The day after I read that, I was in a training class where we all discussed how this client wasn't calling back one of our sales reps and then when we broke for lunch he checked his messages and the client had called right after we had that discussion. It was probably just a coincidence, but it was interesting nonetheless.
I also enjoyed that the book took place in D.C. Since I've been to most of the places in the book, that made it seem more real. I felt like it started a little slow, or maybe it started fine but then dropped off a bit before picking back up. I still read the whole thing pretty quickly, but I wasn't in that can't-put-it-down type of place the whole time. I definitely got there by the end, which was extremely suspenseful and terrifying, but something happened around the second quarter of the book where I just wasn't as focused. Still a good read overall, but that made Angels and Demons better in my opinion.
P.S. It makes me laugh that when I did a Google Images search for The Lost Symbol, the Dharma logo from Lost came up. How funny is that? It's the Lost symbol!

Reading About Readers

I read this blog post today about reading about characters who like to read. I always like when I come across a character who reads, and this blog post happened to point out four books that I've read and liked: Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, The Age of Innocence, and Madame Bovary. Another one that jumps out to me is Catherine in Northhanger Abbey by Jane Austen. That book actually is much better when you read it in context of Catherine being a big reader of gothic novels. The first time I read it around sophomore year of high school, I didn't get it. I didn't like Catherine and thought she overreacted to everything. Which she does, but she's basically trying to be a herione like in one of her precious novels, which makes it all much more understandable. It also makes more sense to know Austen was mocking gothic novels. Since reading it the second time in college with that understanding (thank you Dr. Gerard!), I not only now find this book to be hilarious, I also read more carefully when I notice a character reading.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Year of Living Biblically

I love A.J. Jacobs. I read The Know-It All in January and just loved the way he writes. He made a book about reading the Encyclopedia Brittantica interesting and funny. He just seems like he'd be a cool, although somewhat odd, guy to hang out with. For The Know-It All, he chronicled his year he spent reading the EB. For The Year of Living Biblically, he spent a year following the Bible literally. I was a little nervous about this one because I was afraid he was doing this to try to show how silly the Bible is and poke fun of Christians. That was fortunately not the case. The thing about A.J. that I like is that he just seems to like learning, so he enjoyed the experience of learning more about the Bible and religion in general rather than trying to promote a cause. It was also interesting that one of the reasons he wanted to pursue this topic was because of his son. He didn't want to raise his son to be without religion, without a moral compass. I find it odd that he doesn't want his son to be an agnostic even though he's one. A.J. is also a secular Jew, so that added to the interesting aspects of the book to see him digging into his family history and also made his lack of conversion make a little more sense to me.
Anyway, the book itself is just fascinating. He grows a beard that he can't trim. He wears white clothes. He avoids touching women in general since it might be the time of the month where they are unclean. He takes a seat with him at all times to keep from sitting on soiled ground. He travels to Israel. He attends Jewish religious festivals. He talks to evangelicals and visits a creationism museum. And even though he doesn't believe in creationism, he doesn't mock it either. He talks about how intelligent the scientists there are. He's truly open in a way very few people are. He lets himself experience being in the moment of whereever he is, trying to see others' rituals and beliefs through their eyes. He's still too liberal for me, but then pretty much everyone is.
Summary of why you should read this book: it's funny, entertaining, and enlightening. It made me want to learn more about my religion and dig deeper in the Bible. I learned things I didn't know, both about the Jewish faith and my own.

Monday, October 26, 2009

In-N-Out Burger

In-N-Out Burger by Stacy Perman reads more like a biography than a business book. The intro is wonderful, but then next few chapters focus a little too much on the parents of the founders and their family history. A little bit of background into their family is essential in this story, but it just took a few chapters to even get to the founding on In-N-Out. From there, the story was wonderful, although I kept getting hungrier with every page. Don’t read this on an empty stomach! My mouth started watering during the intro, so much so that I started contemplating the drive to Arizona.
The book starts off talking about the massive lines when they opened the location in Tucson. People showed up during the night before the opening to wait. They piled into the store in lines 7-8 people wide and hundreds deep. Cars snaked around the block. They set up a trailer in the parking lot to have two kitchens and even that couldn’t help keep up with the demand. But the employees kept smiling, service never wavered, and everyone left happy. The heart of this book is how do you create a brand like that? But, it tells the story in a unique way. It follows the advice of fiction writers and shows people how to do this instead of telling them the top 10 ways to build a brand or something like typical business book would do. It made for more interesting reading this way.
One of the key ways In-N-Out built such a huge following is the way they take care of their employees. Even from the beginning, well before such things were taught in any business school, they called their employees “associates” and paid them well over the minimum wage. They also paid them bonuses in savings bonds at Christmas. The Snyders knew that treating their employees with respect wasn’t just the humane and Christian way to do things, but it was also good for business. Keep your employees happy and smiling, and they’ll keep your customers happy and smiling. It’s that simple. You don’t need a fancy business degree to see the truth in that. This book reminded me of how much we overcomplicate things sometimes. Just treat others well and provide a quality service or product. It’s not that complicated. It’s not necessarily easy, but it’s not complicated. You don’t need Six Sigma and fancy customer service systems. You just need common sense, something that most people seem to lack these days.
I became very interested in the story of Rich Snyder (one of the founders' sons) and was sad about his death. He was giving, not only to charities but to employees. He paid for any employee to adopt a child if they couldn't have children, and paid for the adoption costs for a friend as well. Can you imagine being able to help people that way? He was also the one who put the Bible verses on their cups. It will be interesting to see how things play out for the restaurant as Lynsi (granddaughter of the founders and sole heir) takes over. She's my age! I can't imagine having that opportunity or that pressure from such a young age. She's been the sole heir since high school. Crazy.

Telex from Cuba

I have mixed feelings about Rachel Kushner's Telex from Cuba. Overall, I was disappointed, but at the same time I was glad I read it. It had the potential to be a truly great book because of the story, but it just fell a little flat. The novel takes place during the 1950s in Cuba, right before the revolution. It was interesting to read about Americans living the good life in Cuba since we can't even visit there today, or at any point during my lifetime. Kushner's mother grew up there, and that explains why at many times it reads more like a memoir than a novel. However, that caused problems because the main character is a boy, and Kushner just doesn't write effectively as a teenage guy. I kept forgetting that the character was supposed to be a guy. That kept pulling me out of the story. It was made worse by the fact that other characters narrate at various points as well, although he's the only who talks in the first person. All the other character sections are in third person. And yet all of their voices sound the same. It was confusing and distracting. I think the entire book should have been written in Everly Lederer's voice in first person and it would have been a lot stronger overall.
I also found it distracting that one of the characters was named Rachel K. She was a rather unlikable exotic dancer and prostitute/mistress to political leaders such as Batista, whom she spied on for the revolutionaries. It was odd that she had the same name and last initial as the author. Perhaps she was so named after a real person, but this bugged me. Other real people, such as Batista, Raul and Fidel Castro, Hemingway, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz all make appearances, so that may be the case. That added to it seeming like a memoir.
Here are a few things I really liked from the book. On page 24, a black man attacks the store keeper for the United Fruit Company (where pretty much everyone worked, it's now Chiquita). "That's not politics, it's mental illness." Authors have a tendency to turn scenes like this into political statements, so I was pleasantly surprised by that statement. On page 220, one of the characters writes letters to the U.S. State Department about the rebels, warning them, but no one was interested. The Americans on the island were more concerned with Raul Castro's upcoming wedding. Which was a little odd because they kept describing him as gay, although the dancer says at one point that he only acted that way and wasn't really, whereas Fidel seemed to be covering for something in his overly macho act. I also found it interesting that one of the Americans who joined with the rebels eventually left and became super conservative because of what he had seen and been asked to do, such as bulldoze bodies into graves after mass executions. It also talked about how Castro bringing in Che Guevara as finance minister ruined their financial system immediately. Yet idiots lift up these two evil murderers as heroes. It was refreshing to read a book that did not portray them that way, especially a book that was so well-received critically. Maybe the critics just saw it was about Cuba and didn't actually read it.

Overall, I still feel like it was a worthwhile read, but I just feel like it has a lot more potential than what it achieved. It was a finalist for the National Book Award last year though, so apparently I'm in the minority in being disappointed.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Gift of Fear

I have been doing a lot more reading than my blog would suggest. I've fallen behind in my blog posts and have been jumping around in a lot of books recently. This is exactly the habit I was trying to break by starting the blog, so that doesn't seem to be entirely successful. I'm supposed to take a break after each book to reflect on it before diving into the next one. Oops. I will keep working on that as I try to catch up my blog posts.
My friend Summer recently recommended to me a book called The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker. Thanks Summer! I enjoyed this book and liked that reading could help save my life someday, or help keep me from being in a position where my life needs saving! It's about your intution and how that can warn you to remove yourself from a potentially dangerous situation, and how it can help you if you are in danger to know how to respond. I tend to be a little paranoid about being attacked, and have always believed that that will actually lessen my chances of actually getting attacked - constant vigilence! (Thank you Mad-Eyed Moody, or Barty Crouch, Jr. technically I guess.) Anyway, it seems I'm actually right. I'm not trusting of other people and I'm not afraid to be rude so I actually have much less of a chance of being attacked because I come off as someone who would fight harder. Usually criminals look for easy targets, people who will let them in to make a phone call type of things or who won't want to offend someone. So it's nice to know that particular character trait of mine isn't a flaw after all! I was a little disappointed that this book didn't have more practical self-defense type of tips, although really it's point was to avoid those situations to begin with so that makes sense. It also addressed domestic violence, which the author grew up having to deal with, and tried to explain some of the psychology behind those who stay in those situations, but I still just don't get it. That will never make sense to me. He does say that when it happens once you're a victim, twice you're a fool though, which I do tend to agree with. This book was also interesting to me in light of the recent story about that Jaycee who was held prisoner for 18 years. It's interesting to me that she survived that long. I would have died trying to escape or would have killed the guy. No other option. Even if it had happened when I was 11. Obviously it worked out for her not fighting to hard, and we don't know exactly what happened anyway so I'm not judging her, I just know he would have had to kill me long before 18 years went by. My aunt agreed with me, but she said he probably would have killed me just to make me shut up or I would have annoyed him to death, which I thought was funny. Anyway, thank you Summer for recommending this book and I in turn recommend to anyone else reading this!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Unfinished Books

So, it looks like The Invisible Man is doing it's best to defeat me again. I started reading it again, but I hit the fourth chapter and haven't picked it up since. It's just not very good. I don't think it's well written, and the story isn't interesting. And there was the bit in the second chapter about the man raping his daughter while his wife was asleep next to them and getting her pregnant. This is something I really don't understand about a lot of American black literature. It seems like when the author is trying to make a social statement about blacks and racism in our culture, they write crap like this. How is creating characters like this one conducive to ending racism? It just makes them look bad. I know it's supposed to symbolize how whites have treated them or something, but it just doesn't make sense and isn't effective. It makes me hesitant to read anything that is promoting in the same fashion as this or Toni Morrison's works. They're awful. Why not write something like Their Eyes Were Watching God? That's one of my favorite books, and is wonderfully effective at both showing the injustices done against blacks and yet portraying them in a positive light and making you care about the characters. Isn't that more effective? I care about Janie. I want her to have a good, happy life. And I identify with her. Isn't that a better way to tell your story and try to end racism through your works? Once someone connects to your characters and identifies with them, that changes them. Hurston is amazing at doing that. Ellison and Morrison on the other hand just create characters that disgust me. I don't identify with them at all and would want to avoid them. How is that helping anyone?
I think that tells me that I should just stick The Invisible Man back on the shelf. Besides, I've experienced new-found freedom in my new policy of not having to finish books just because I start them. I've done this with two other books recently and it's wonderful that I'm not forcing myself to sludge through the drivel that is some of these books. The two I abandoned were Adverbs by Daniel Handler and The King James Conspiracy by Philip DePoy. Handler wrote A Series of Unfortunate Events, and I was so excited to learn he writes adult books too. Until I started Adverbs anyway. It was TERRIBLE. It made no sense whatsoever, featured two sexually confused men in the first 50 pages, and was just a bunch of ramblings and random words thrown together. Awful. The DePoy book was a Da Vinci Code knock-off that failed miserably. He tries to make up for a terrible story by including lots of gore to distract you from the fact the plot makes no sense. That was disappointing because there was a lot of controversy around the writing of the King James version of the Bible and I thought it could make a great story. Perhaps in the hands of a better author it would.

Thank God It's Monday!

Our sales leadership team read Roxanne Emmerich's Thank God It's Monday for our strategic planning meeting this week. I have to admit, I thought the title was cheesy and was not overly thrilled with the thought of reading it. However, it actually turned out to be a pretty good little book. It's all about creating a workplace that employees and customers will love. I really liked how it was written in short chapters, with "Try This" sections at the end of each one. Those sections made the book much more practical and easy to implement than many business books. It also just had a lot of common sense advice that makes you wonder why all companies don't do it. I am encouraged that our leadership team felt like this was something we should read and focus on in the coming year. Like most companies, we had a difficult year this year. When you're focused on staying in budget, layoffs, and whether offices will close, it's hard to focus on having fun at work and making it a place where everyone wants to go. Fortunately, we've fared much better than our competition this year and look like we're ready to charge into 2010 successfully. Hopefully we'll be able to implement some of the suggestions from this book to continue improving.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Pandora Gets Vain

Pandora Gets Vain is the second book in the Pandora series by Carolyn Hennessy that I talked about earlier. These books are just plain fun. In this one, the girls begin traveling to Egypt from Greece to find Vanity. Along the way, the meet Homer, as in the poet not the Simpsons' character. He's just a young guy and isn't blind at this time, and isn't really a big talker. One of the girls gets a big crush on him though. He's pretty entertaining. They also get shipwrecked and end up hitching rides on dolphins, almost die in an Egyptian tomb, and meet up with a band of circus travelers.
These books are just perfect for tween/teen girls. They are light and fun, but have historical and personal lessons, are clean and wholesome, but not annoyingly and unrealistically so.