Saturday, December 15, 2012

An Average Story of an Average Life

Book Review: Fool by Frederick Dillen

Mind you, there is nothing wrong with average - it is of course that part of the bell curve under which most of us live. I am not one that believes that extraordinary writing must only refer to extraordinary characters; if that was true there would be few books worth reading indeed.

Writers like John Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis made their mark writing amazing fiction about the less than amazing lives of nobodies not unlike you or me.

Sadly, Frederick G. Dillen's Fool fails to bring any resonance to the story of anti-hero Barnaby Griswold. The story doesn't reverbrate or reflect or amplify - which even a story about average people (for instance Lewis' Main Street or Steinbeck's The Wayward Bus) is capable of doing. It drifts along much as its protagonist does: directionless, incomplete, and unfulfilled.

Barnaby is not unlikable, although at times he doesn't much like himself; some of his fellow characters actually care about Barnaby. His actions, his goals, and his beliefs are not any different than many people you would meet in real life, or in really good fiction. The characters are believable, the plot sustainable - yet Fool doesn't quite bring it off.

Barnaby may consider himself a fluffmeister, of which there are plenty in this world, but he is not devoid of life. I did not expect Barnaby to come to any heroic revelations or noble enlightenment. However, his story comes across as no more substantial than a wallpaper tiger, leaving Barnaby no more than a cutout himself, and Fool only a moderately entertaining bit of fluff.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The American Way

Book Review: Visiting Tom by Michael Perry

Once upon a time - 'back in the day' - knowledge was handed down from generation to generation, self-reliance and thrift were considered virtues, and being a good neighbor was not an advertising slogan. In Visiting Tom, Michael Perry shows us that 'once upon a time' is the present, at least in the person of Tom Hartwig.

While we sit and decry the decline in American innovation, Tom was building his own sawmill. While we bemoan the increasing encroachment of government, Tom was persuading the highway department to reroute the interstate that bisects his property. While we worry about going green, Tom is repairing, reusing, and recycling, renewing the old and creating anew.

This is not a Luddite dream of returning to the past, throwing technology aside. It's about embracing the knowledge of the past and applying it to the present and future, of recognizing home-grown initiative and perseverance and moving them to their rightful places in the arsenal of American ideas.

While these may be regarded as old-fashioned, small Midwest town values, we could all do worse than to sit a spell with Tom and absorb some of the knowledge and expertise that were once an integral part of American culture. Visiting Tom gives us that opportunity.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

For Fans of The Three Musketeers

Book Review: The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss

As a student of history, and a fan of the writings of Alexandre Dumas, I had high expectations for The Black Count. I'm happy to report that author Tom Reiss (The Orientalist) did not disappoint.

The latter half of the 18th century was a time of political turmoil, with long-seated governments overthrown, and wide-ranging changes made to the established order. These heroic times bred heroic men; Alex Dumas was just such a man. Physically imposing, a skilled swordsman and horseman, he was the epitome of a man of the age. There was just one problem - although his father was a French aristocrat, his mother was a black slave.

Tom Reiss manages to tie together the real-life character of Alex Dumas and the literary characters of his son's novels, set against the background of the years leading up to and through the French Revolution. Instead of a dry recitation of European history, we are treated to the living and breathing adventures of a truly larger-than-life officer and gentleman. The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers may have been fiction, but it is easy the see where Alexandre Dumas took his inspiration - the real life story of his father.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Surreal Experience Known as "Being Alive"

Book Review: Juliet in August by Dianne Warren

For this reader, what sets a few novels above the majority lies in a rather subjective quality: does the author make me feel the characters, rather than just see them? In a great movie this is that moment when you realize that you weren't just watching the movie, you were in it.

That moment occurred as I was reading Diane Warren's Juliet in August at about the third page. I may be wrong; it might have been closer to the fifth page. That feeling lasted until the end of the book, over the several days I was reading it.

Now I can read as fast as anyone, and I have had those "stayed-up-all-night-reading" events as well. While visiting Juliet (which is a place, not a person), I found myself reading more slowly than usual, taking my time and getting the feel of the country.

There is a flow to living in a small town, and it's not everyone's cup of tea. It moves slower than in the city, but it's there all the same. Faster is not always better -- you miss a lot hurtling down the freeway. The best way to see the world around you is ... on a horse. Preferably a horse that you just found and use to re-enact a legendary 100-mile horse race.

OK, so that's not part of the normal flow of a small town, but it is around this somewhat improbable thread that Warren wraps the stories that make up Juliet. Before long a man on a horse seems no more out-of-place than any of the 'ordinary' events taking place: the day-to-day ebb and flow of life, love, and relationships. Simple small town life? Sure!

Pull up a chair, and dive in to Juliet. I'll make you a cup of tea.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The World's Toughest Job

Book Review: Father's Day: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son by Buzz Bissinger

As my own children merge into the adult world, I have become increasingly certain that the hardest thing in the world is being a parent - that is, being a "good" parent. Knowing when to guide, when to discipline, when to hold them, when to let go; it's enough to give anyone nightmares.

In Father's Day, Buzz Bissinger adds yet a new element to the waking dream that is parenthood - that of being a parent to a 'special' child. Multiply all of the uncertainty factors by 2, add a 'normal' twin brother, and you have a landscape that Bosch would envy.

While I did not agree with the author on some counts (like taking this trip in the first place!) I could certainly empathize with his situation. Taking a cross-country trip with my two kids by automobile was stressful enough; the bonding experience was excruciating at times. But being a parent means taking the bad with the good. Bissinger wanted to be closer to his son, to get to know him again as he grew into an uncertain manhood.

Father's Day captures the anxiety, turmoil, hope, and love that define what it is to be a parent. At times an enjoyable father-son travelogue, sometimes a painful experience in estrangement, it is as real as it gets in a rented minivan in the heartland of America.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Consequences of Denial

Book Review: Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iverson

Author Kristen Iverson seems to be telling us two vastly different stories in Full Body Burden. The first is her own story of growing up in Arvada, Colorado - normal stuff about family and friends and pets and school.

The second story is the tale of the Rocky Flats Plant: its secretive workings, its impact on the environment and the citizens of the Denver Metro area, and the investigations into one of the most radioactively contaminated places on this planet. What brings these two seemingly disparate tales together?

The common thread is the ultimate cost of continual denial. The author refers repeatedly to the closed conversations within her family. There were some things you just didn't talk about; whether they were true or not was irrelevant. Her father's alcoholism symbolizes her family's emotional distance from reality. The gradual slide becomes a slippery slope and half-truths become untruths. As her parents' marriage goes into meltdown they desperately try to fill the cracks in the facade and refuse to deal with the problems around them.

The federal agencies charged with regulating Rocky Flats tried first to deny there was an issue at all; defining 'healthy' limits of radioactive exposure when there was no research to base those numbers on. As the leakage of radioactivity and information continued, the DOE tried to do a patch job, throwing the stone wall of "National Security" around the crumbling infrastructure, facts be damned.

Even today, the truth regarding Rocky Flats (now a National Wildlife Refuge) is not fully known: "The final contamination levels of Rocky Flats itself as measured by the U.S. government after the Superfund cleanup, and those reported to an impanelled grand jury, are sealed records and have not been reported to the public." [Wikipedia] The denial continues.

While Ms. Iverson does an excellent job pulling the threads of her twin stories together, there were a few points in the narrative where I felt a little confused about the timeline of events, and a little lost in the turmoil of her family. I imagine she felt the same. A solid four stars with those qualifications, and a huge "Thank you" to the author for bringing us this work. (Note: This reviewer lived and worked in the Denver Metro area for twenty years.)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Evolving Art of Virtual Teamwork

Book Review: Virtual Teamwork: Mastering the Art and Practice of Online Learning and Corporate Collaboration edited by Robert Ubell

Despite the glut of books on social networking (or perhaps because of it) there is a scarcity of peer-reviewed source material on virtual teams. Virtual Teamwork takes an important step toward bridging that gap.

Distance learning and virtual collaboration are here to stay. Team projects are now the norm in most organizations, often across geographical boundaries. In the past ten years I have been involved in three virtual teams for three different employers, as well as being involved in several distance learning efforts. The results have been mixed, but this is an indication of how this sector is evolving, not a question of its validity.

As many organizations are discovering, it is not just about the technology. "Cute cat" tools like Facebook or Twitter are obviously not a solution for corporate or educational communication. The fact that millions of people use social media does not give it value - millions of people also watch "reality" TV shows. Wall Street made it clear that Facebook was over-valued. But just installing Lync or some other flavor of the month messaging tool into the corporate software pool isn't the answer either if no one uses it.

The essays that editor Robert Ubell has gathered covers many of the hurdles that one encounters in virtual teams. Although they are often couched from the perspective of one discipline, the insights can be applied across the spectrum. For instance, the problems that occur in team projects in a university class are not any different than one sees in a corporate environment, and the solutions bear equal weight as well.

While there may not be enough detail for organizational leaders looking for a blueprint ("use software X, it will solve all your problems"), Ubell and his contributors have given us a research based framework to build on. As such, I find Virtual Teamwork an invaluable resource that promotes 'out of the box' thinking towards managing virtual teams and collaborative groups.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Labyrinthian Mystery

Book Review: Floors: Book 1 by Patrick Carman

Part fantasy, part mystery, part allegory, and part myth - author Patrick Carman covers all the bases in his young adult novel Floors. That's a high hurdle for any book to leap, and I think Floors clears it with room(s) to spare.

We join the young protagonist, Leo Fillmore in his quest to find out what happened to Merganzer Whippet, owner and builder of the Whippet Hotel. The hotel is a maze of hallways and stairwells, tunnels, hidden floors, and secret rooms. And in true labyrinth fashion, the only way out of the mystery of Mr. Whippets's disappearance is the way in - into the secret heart of the Whippet Hotel. Following cryptic clues, Leo follows the thread deeper into the unknown windings of the Whippet.

Every labyrinth needs a mythical monster, and in the case of the Whippet, that monster is the unnamed, unseen Mr. M. Or is it? There is a real monster inside the Hotel, and it is up to Leo to uncover it. In the process he discovers how the hotel and its builder are linked, and how Leo himself is part of the puzzle.

It's a journey of discovery for both Leo and the reader, "Floors" is a highly enjoyable story on many levels.

Monday, May 14, 2012

One Person Can Make a Difference

Book Review: His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg by Louise Borden

How do you convey the terror of one of the darkest times in modern history to the young? How do you try to explain the horror of the Holocaust to your children? And how do you show the heroism of those who refuse to let the light of humanity be extinguished?

In His Name was Raoul Wallenberg, author Louise Borden manages to answer those three questions with a text that is both lyrical and profound in its simplicity. Borden shows how the life of Raoul Wallenberg was changed by the time he lived in, and how he changed history in response. Born into a life of privilege, he became a tireless advocate of those who were being ruthlessly victimized simply because of their own birthright. Borden lets us see that as Wallenberg's awareness of what is happening grows, his resolve to take a stand grows as well. History made the man, and the man made history in return.

Adult readers may find the form and content of Borden's work unfamiliar and unfulfilling. Adult readers are not the target audience of this book. It is sent out to the young, and I believe it will squarely hit that mark. It is clear that Ms. Borden knows her subject well, and I do hope that she will grace us with a more detailed full-length adult version of Raoul Wallenberg's story. Even we adults need to be reminded that "one person can make a difference in the world."

Monday, April 2, 2012

Travels with Reg

Book Review: The Great Northern Express: A Writer's Journey Home by Howard Frank Mosher

"But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love." [1 Corinthians 13:13, NASB]

Easy to say, not as easy to realize. As Howard Frank Mosher takes us on his journey through the three phases of The Great Northern Express, he re-learns the lesson that love is an ongoing process, not a destination. Love of life, of one's work, and of the people that we hold dear are intertwined in ways that we do not always appreciate or comprehend.

Northern Express is not so much a tale of a book tour; like all great journeys the actual reason may be obscured, even to ourselves. It is not a series of momentous discoveries and personal epiphanies. At the simplest level it is the story of a man in a car, traveling across the country to see what he can find. Like John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley in Search of America, Mosher is not really sure what he is looking for, or even sure he will know if he finds it.

The true measure of a road trip is not the things that you see, or the people you meet, or the photos you take. The true measure of a journey is seen in the person that comes back home. The journey does not occur 'out there', it is internal, and personal. Through his series of tales Mosher shows us both sides of the story, allowing us a glimpse of ourselves as he finds his own way home.

Thanks for the ride Harold.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Required Reading for Would-Be Genealogists

Book Review: The Night Sky: A Journey From Dachau to Denver and Back by Maria Sutton

If one were to believe the television advertisements, tracing your family history is as simple as logging in to a website and clicking on a picture of a leaf. Archives will miraculously open to reveal that your great-grandfather was a private detective who lived next door to Henry Ford and invented the limited-slip differential. Who forgot to mention THAT?

Sadly, as Maria Sutton (and this author) can attest, genealogy is not that simple, even in the digital age. As she details in The Night Sky, Ms. Sutton's journey to find the father she never knew is a more accurate reflection of what a family history researcher actually goes through. The Night Sky is required reading for any would-be genealogist.

The first obstacle facing the new family historian is the reluctance of relatives. Every family has skeletons in the closet - or at least they believe they do. Even if those skeletons have decayed into dust, there are members of your family who will try to divert you from finding out "the truth about Uncle Joe", whose sin was too deep and dark to reveal. They mean well, they just don't want you to embarrass the family in your efforts to "dredge up" the past.

The second hurdle is the inaccuracy and unavailability of records. A tree full of leaves notwithstanding, not everything you see can be taken at face value. The index you are searching online is a transcription of a blurry and possibly misspelled handwritten record. Check and double-check your sources; don't mistake the tree for the leaves.

And finally, as Maria Sutton herself learned, the toughest roadblock to the truth is your own mindset. While you may want to believe your forefather (or mother) was a a local hero, for most of us it simply is not true. Just because they were alive while important events were happening does not mean they were involved in them; it's hard to be objective when it comes to your own ancestry.

The moral of The Night Sky is that no matter what you may have thought of them, and no matter how far from that perception they landed, your ancestors DID play an important part in life -- they made YOU possible. Maria Sutton's journey to find her family may not be the stuff TV commercials are made of, but it was worth the trip.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Pauses Between the Notes

Book Review: The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomon

"Music isn't just notes; it's also filled with rests or measured silences. We wait during the pauses, listening to the possibility of music."

Shortly before starting on Natasha Solomons' The House at Tyneford, I had come across the Wikipedia article on the Dorset 'ghost village' of Tyneham. After reading the summary of the book, I realized that the connection was tenuous, but I took a chance and ordered The House at Tyneford anyway, promised at least a classic English setting.

The early parts of the story reminded me of The Mirador, Elisabeth Gille's autobiographical novel set in roughly the same time period. The years between the wars only sharpened the issues that had brought about the First World War - the "War to End All Wars" was only a prelude. Those holding onto the remnants of the imperial lifestyle, like the Landaus, were torn apart, literally and figuratively.

Once Elise Landau arrives in England, the story centers on the changes that any immigrant would face - learning a new language, a new culture, and new values. In addition, Elise has been forced to make a huge change in her own class status as well. Ms. Solomons does an excellent job of portraying both her characters frustration and naivete. In doing so she manages to find the middle ground - relaying enough details to allow us to feel the character, yet in turn allowing us to fill in the blanks with our own feelings, to see the possibilities of the character'

While written from the viewpoint of a female character, the story is accessible to male readers as well. Some emotions are universal, even if our reactions to them are personal. Love, loss, fear, courage, and pride are not divided by gender, and the author helps us find the ground common to us all.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Too Much of a Good Thing

Book Review: The House at Sea's End by Elly Griffiths

In the third book of her "Ruth Galloway" mystery series, The House at Sea's End, author Elly Griffith presents us with a complex set of characters: half a dozen buried corpses, three new murder victims, and a host of potential suspects -- all being trailed by a team of law enforcers assisted by a score of secondary characters. It's enough to make your head spin:

"Nelson gets Judy to fax through the list of titles (Ruth is almost the last person in the world still to have a fax machine). Ruth reads through the names while Nelson plays peek-a-boo with Kate. Ruth wishes Clough could see him."

... three sentences reference five characters, two of whom aren't even in the room.

I enjoy character-driven fiction, and I appreciate that even fictional characters have friends, but sometimes less is more. As DCI Harry Nelson says, "Don't make things too complicated." I realize that I read an Advance Readers Copy (prone to typos), but at least one minor character changes names in the middle of the story, and it wasn't a plot device. Too many details can play heck with continuity. Locations and timelines in many cases were confusing or even contradictory.

I am a fan of the classic English mystery; Griffith has the setting, the characters, and the crime down pat, there is just too much and the story's readability suffers. The House at Sea's End sets the stage, but gets lost in the scenery changes.