Flipping

I buy books. And sometimes I read them. This blog is for the times when I do more than just store shelf candy.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

THE MUSE ASYLUM by David Czuchlewski

I confess I chose this book by virtue of its attractive cover. And the intriguing title.

The Muse Asylum is what it says it is, “an institution for the artistically gifted mentally ill.” This is where Andrew Wallace is voluntarily detained as he receives treatment for being crazy -- seeing people on his trail, smashing his professor’s car, imagining conspiracies against him. Conspiracies led by Horace Jacob Little -- the subject of his thesis, a reclusive writer, whose face, identity, and whereabouts have been an enigma to fans and the media.

Part of Andrew’s therapy is to write a memoir. In the memoir, which he calls Confessions, he writes, “Horace Jacob Little had been my password to love and happiness. My relationship with Lara tangled up in his fiction.”

Lara Knowles is Andrew’s fiancĂ©e. She is also the former love of Jake Burnett, a journalist who is assigned to write a scoop on Horace Jacob Little.

This threesome of former Princeton students gets entangled in a drama-filled chase for answers about love, truth, and Horace Jacob Little. Who is Horace Jacob Little? Where is he? What does he look like? Is he really after Andrew? As soon as you get the answers, the plot shifts and all your previous assumptions are blown out the window. And new answers emerge as even more new questions arise. The alternating narrations by Jake (the sane but seeking voice) and Andrew (the paranoid, tortured voice) give this novel a deep, interesting texture.

From the front cover blurb to the last pages of the novel, this is branded as a post modern novel. Frankly, I wouldn’t recognize postmodernism even if it hits me on the face with a metanarrative. Regardless, this is an entertaining read. Because Czuchlewski can write, albeit in a raw, first-novel, trying-hard-to-please-my-mentor-Joyce-Carol-Oates way. But he can write. He weaves words that make me feel the grime and heat of New York and the irony of isolation in the density of its people. He narrates in ways that make me empathize with every character. He inundates you with mush as Andrew describes his love for Lara, but hey, he’s a mad, love-sick, deeply troubled man and the author writes him as such. He knows how to lay it on and build it up, so much so that I was gearing up for a climax that would blow my mind away. Twenty pages away from the end of the book and I realized that that fantabulous, mind-blowing ending was not going to happen. The ending was satisfactory, with all the loose ends tied neatly and all the boggling questions answered. Satisfactory, but not fantastic.

Maybe Czuchlewski had a word count limit, or he ran out of time, because it seemed to me the novel could have been longer. Maybe by a couple more chapters. Long enough to properly explain how Jake Burnett, who started enamored by Lara and irked by Andrew suddenly became attached to Andrew and no longer in love with Lara. How the change of heart happened is not sufficiently developed. Or maybe that’s postmodernism playing with my head.

And is it postmodern to have a story within a story? Little's novels and short stories expectedly have striking parallelisms with the first narrative being played out within the quirky love triangle of Andrew-Lara-Jake. I like it, but lately, I've been reading a lot of those types of twists, they're no longer twists.

This is probably one of those books that I would like better after the reading. I’m still chewing on it even after having finished it days ago. There are clever surprises at the end that made me appreciate the author, his humor, and okay, postmodern literature.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

I Flipped the Pages of Patrick Lencioni's The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

My copy: Hardbound with Dust Jacket
ISBN: 9780787960759
229 pages

It only takes one sitting (in the salon, for me) to read through this book. Whether you’re multitasking or dedicating your full attention to this book, it would be time well spent. Easy, light, and quick reading but heavy on substance. Smacks of good sense. This made me want to get back into full employment just so I can lead a team and apply the learnings.

As a writer, speaker, and management consultant on leadership topics, Patrick Lencioni couldn’t help but notice that genuine teamwork was elusive in most organizations. So he set out to write a book that dissects the pitfalls to team effectiveness. This is the output.

Even though it uses a parable approach and it touches on soft skills, it doesn’t get touchy feely. And just because it discusses leadership principles, it does not get pedantic or preachy either. Cerebral but practical. It doesn’t tell you what to do, but it gives you a lot of ideas to chew on.

Lencioni talks about trust, commitment, communication, accountability. Yes, you’ve heard those before. On the surface, he does not offer anything new; no new clever buzzwords that will rock the HR community and will soon be part of every clichĂ©-ridden inspirational speech. But what he does is present a fresh perspective on old fashioned concepts. What he does very well is to sew up all these concepts together as interrelated elements. He does not give us a an ala carte checklist of teamwork must-haves. He prescribes that all these elements must be present, that they are interconnected parts. Teamwork starts with trust and builds up from there. Not very radical. Maybe even too sensible. But when you look at the failed teams out there, you realize these ideas are not so common.

The fable format makes this very memorable and easy to follow. Certainly not an original concept, but it works for me. This is from an article about Patrick Lencioni and this book:

“I think people learn better when they're engaged in a story,’ says Lencioni. ‘A lot of people who don't like to read business books, or get bogged down by them, will like a good story. I felt like I could actually better convey the message and help people understand how it works in the world by taking them through with a character who is dealing with it.”

To capitalize on the power of the storytelling tradition – good call, Patrick. Fictional it may be, but it is a realistic fable. So realistic it brings me back to my own experience of dysfunctional teams. Even personal relationships among family and friends.

It also considers human nature. Egos in the team can get in the way of achieving results. His theories do not ignore but instead consider the reality of these egos and how they play out in the workplace as well as how they need to be balanced with team achievement.

The eureka moment for me is its take on conflict. That it’s necessary. That it can be productive, constructive. Lencionie says about conflict: “If it’s not a little uncomfortable then it is not real.” They key is to keep doing it anyway.” I think this applies to work teams and to personal relationships as well.

The fable approach does have its built-in weakness. Because it is focused on a fictional account of a team, no real case studies could be given to substantiate Lencioni’s theories. I guess the best way to test them is to try them. First, get a copy of this required reading for managers and leaders.

By the way, ExeQServe, a training and HR company that can help build your organization, offers team building workshops that use Lencioni's framework. Check out this link for various team building workshops. http://www.exeqserve.com/?cat=31 . There are indoor and outdoor options.

THE 10 MOST ANNOYING ENGLISH GRAMMAR ERRORS by Jose A. Carillo

I was itching to read this book because there are very few English grammar books written by Filipinos and primarily for Filipinos.

Why are such books important? Because a list of common grammar mistakes among Filipinos would differ from a list of common grammar mistakes committed by Americans. It has to do with the Filipino language's nuances that affect how we translate Filipino to English. Our misuse of prepositions, for example, owes itself to our having very few, hardworking, multi-tasking prepositions; the Filipino preposition sa, for example, takes the role of to, from, in, on.

Americans tend to make a big deal of the difference between lay and lie, when that does not bother us as much as matching subjects with verbs. Subject-verb agreement is very tricky for us because our verb conjugations are rarely affected by the number of the subject. (Si Juan ay pumunta sa palengke. Kaming lahat ay pumunta sa palengke.)

I like that Carillo focuses on the 10 Most Annoying Grammar Mistakes instead of attacking every grammar rule.

The blurb on the front cover says that this is a highly instructive book. It is. Carillo knows his stuff. I have learned, or at least been reminded of, a few things from this book.

I also like that the book is very slim. It makes it a handy guide that can occupy prime work station realty; you can keep this beside the computer.

The 120 peso price tag is one of the best things about this book. I want a book like this to be readily available to as many Filipinos as possible.

I’m with Carillo when he talks about squinting modifiers.

I share his passionate annoyance with the mixing of the pronoun their together with the indefinite pronoun everybody. I once saw a TV ad that used the tag line “Everyone has their own story.” And I wanted to write a vehement letter to the company. That is wrong because everyone, even though in its sense is plural (similar to all), grammatically it is singular. Everyone is welcome. Everyone has been informed of the latest rules. Everyone who attends the workshop must bring her own tools.

There are a couple of points that don’t sit well with me, the use of semi-colons for instance . Which is not to question the author's stand. It’s just proof that grammar is not necessarily an exact science. There is a great degree of subjectivity where the ear of the listener serves as a biased judge as to what sounds right.

Because this book is very focused, very concise, it is not for everybody. It’s very instructive, yes. But it is also very pedantic. This is not for the grammatically clueless. It seems to address highly educated readers who are already well versed in English but just need reminders or guidance in clarifying a few minor points of confusion. My observation can be substantiated by some of the reader responses. Those who read Carillo’s language guidelines are people who actually enjoy using and learning more about the language. People who consider it pleasantly challenging to debate Carillo’s language usage.

It is not for everybody. It is not for the truly annoying grammar criminals who have no idea that there is a difference between it’s and its. Not for those who fog up at hearing the phrase subject-verb agreement. Not for people who will be scared by the book’s impassioned debate about transitive verbs and intransitive verbs. Nor readers who might get turned off or intimidated by some of the complex grammar rules explained in the book. People who just want to be able to speak English with minimum embarrassment and would live and die without having to be illuminated on the thin-line difference between the verbs take and bring. Those who really annoy you with their unique and “creative” interpretation of the English language. The ones who truly need a grammar book.

What I'm trying to say is that the book's size, price, and coarse newsprint pages may have made the book accessible, but the language still does not.

I’m also bewildered by the Endnotes chapter. A last minute addition to a book that was already done, blueprints and all? I think it would have been better to insert them into the appropriate chapters, instead of having that postscript chapter. Seemed anti-climactic to me after its previous chapter, Summing it Up, well, summed it up.

Another thing I didn’t like about this book is that it is almost purely instructional. Maybe it’s just me, but I think entertainment value matters as well if one really wants to reach out to an audience of disinterested readers who might benefit from this book. Dr. Dups Reyes is one who attempts to do this and succeeds to a certain degree. Many other American books inject wit into their grammar lessons. June Casagrande’s Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies, Laurie Rozaki’s Comma Sutra, Steven Frank’s The Pen Commandments, and Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots, Leaves educate as well as entertain. It’s a good thing the book was short. Or else The 10 Most Annoying English Grammar Errors would be one of the most annoyingly boring books I’ve read.

Available at National Book Store.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Islandhopper's Best and Worst Reads of 2008

The Flips Flipping Pages gathered on the last day of January 2009 to talk about their best and worst reads of 2008. It was supposed to be done ala-Show and Tell. Since most of my books have been boxed, I could not show my books. So I prepared this image instead. My absolute worst read was Heaven is Real. Never mind that is is badly written, repetitive, and solipsistic. What I didn't like about this was that it's so unbiblical, I think the devil itself wrote this. It deserves to burn, hence the lower right image. I just did not want to talk about it and dignify it, so my official worst read was Lauren Weisberger's The Devil Wears Prada. A slightly more entertaining take on the devil.

I saw the movie first and loved it. I suppose this only works in film, with the fashion montages, Meryl Streep, and Emily Blunt. The movie is crisp, fast-paced, and sharp-witted. The book is a major disappointment. Writing is mediocre, cumbersome, and tries too hard to be witty. I'm guessing it was just the Anna Wintour allusions that made this book a bestseller.

Check out my top 10 reads. Noteworthy are:

Lolita - Best Writing
I did not want nor expect to like this, but the I was blown away by Nabokov's writing. It takes great skill to make readers sympathize for such a despicable character.
Review at: http://islandhopper.blogspot.com/2008/11/lolita-by-vladimir-nabokov.html

To Kill A Mockingbird - Best Message
Review at: http://islandhopper.blogspot.com/2008/12/to-kill-mockinbird-by-harper-lee.html

Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress - Most Charming
and The Best Cinematography in the Movie of My Mind
Review at: http://islandhopper.blogspot.com/2008/11/balzac-and-little-chinese-seamstress-by.html

The Shack - Most Thought Provoking
Review at: http://islandhopper.blogspot.com/2008/11/shack-by-william-p-young.html

And the Best Read for 2008 was not the best written, not the most famous, not the one that made me cry. I chose it because it was the one that was most personal, the one that I could relate to the most, the one that struck a chord. A Celibate Season is about a husband and wife separated for a season due to the wife's work. This reminded me so much of the 7 months I spent working in Hanoi, Vietnam -- the loneliness, the misery, the growing independence, communicating through written words, the challenges to be faithful, and eventually the realization that very few things are worth the prolonged separation of husband and wife who want to keep a marriage healthy. Review at: http://islandhopper.blogspot.com/2008/11/celibate-season-by-carol-shields-and.html

2008 was definitely about books. I have never ever bought and read as many books as I did last year. I was hard put to choose the one best book, but there were many, many good reads. I felt so accomplished having set aside that much time for reading. The FFP book discussions challenged me to read books I wouldn't normally read, expanded my comfort zones, and forced me to form and express opinions about books. I discovered authors. I learned. I enjoyed. I met people even more passionate than I was about books. Thousands of pesos spent on books. Hundreds of miles and hours walked in search of books. Tens of square meters of floor space disappeared under mountain piles of books. The experience of falling in love with books over and over again -- just priceless.

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