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Entries in literature (32)

Wednesday
Sep212016

Things You Should Never Leave Home Without

The formidable foursome of things I can never leave home without. August 14, 2016. Houston, Texas.

Even men who only have pockets to pack have leaving-home essentials, right?

Other than wallets, keys, and cell phones (a relatively new addition to the list), all of us have items we need to feel complete when leaving the house.

Here’s mine:

Book

You’ll never regret bringing a book.

If you bring it on your phone or tablet, that counts. As a real-book person, my taking one along when I leave the house makes for a lot less convenience. Yet I do it anyway.

I’ve regretted not bringing a book when I’ve gotten stuck somewhere without one—in a car on high ground sitting out a flash-flood storm, in a waiting room, sitting at a coffee shop when the person I’d come to meet got caught in traffic—and have never regretted having one when I haven’t ended up with a reading window.

Need suggestions? Check my list of all-time favorites (so far) and check the “Writing” category on this blog for annual and biannual best-reads reviews.

What’cha reading?

Lip Balm

Who in the world—man or woman—can manage to leave the house without lip balm? Even in Houston, a veritable swamp, I use lip balm regularly throughout the day. Once an hour. Maybe more.

Sure, it soothes, but dry, chapped lips look kind of creepy, too. Who wants that?

My favorite is the Nivea Smoothness Lip Care pictured above, but really, any lip balm without the menthol stuff that just seems to chap lips even more (has anyone else noticed that this happens?) and without fake flavoring that I have to taste all day works for me.

Any I should try?

Sunglasses

Blue-eyed people tend to suffer from greater photosensitivity, my optometrist tells me.

I use this medical opinion as my excuse for buying the darkest possible sunglasses and wearing them even on cloudy days, which feel just as bright to me as the sunny ones.

My first album purchase as a kiddo? Corey Hart, of “Sunglasses at Night” fame. (My dad felt horror—on the record cover, Corey Hart has an earring.) I’ve worn sunglasses at night, too. Though not due to hiding from a love interest, like our friend Corey.

Seems like Dolce & Gabbana reliably makes sunglasses with dark-enough lenses that work on my face and don’t have a bunch of unnecessary bling (e.g., charms, rhinestones, scrollwork). I’d buy much cheaper ones if they worked as well. (So far, no luck.)

Found any cheaper options you like?

Tea Bags

Maybe you don’t drink hot tea. Then bring some sort of liquid flavoring along with you. The powder packets that make lemonade. Or Kool-Aid. Or instant coffee, if you like that.

Who enjoys going somewhere and not liking any of the drink choices? And yes, this does mean I will ask a waiter for a cup of hot water when the restaurant doesn’t have tea. (Restaurants actually don’t sometimes. Or offer only Lipton. Which doesn’t count.) If we have lunch or dinner somewhere, brace yourself for this possibility.

Now, tea that comes in tea bags tastes so distantly inferior to properly brewed loose-leaf tea that it feels laughable to name a favorite. I have liked the Stash plain green tea as an option I can buy at the grocery store, though finer tea options like Taylor’s of Harrogate do taste a bit better when you find them.

Any better teas I should try?

Surely I’ve missed something. What does my list lack? The rest of you have to have similar lists of must-have items for leaving home.

What don’t you venture out without?

Monday
Jan252016

The Best Books I Read in 2015

A hallway line-up of the books I read in 2015--good, bad, and boring. January 2016.

Time for my annual review of the best books I read in the year past, following the tradition of my posts in 2013 and 2014. (Have I really had this blog for so long?)

Aside: I read in The New York Times that Bill Gates has this same practice on his blog. What excellent company.

In 2014, I didn’t read as many books as I typically manage in a year, and this year my reading fared even worse. My 2015 total: A measly thirty-six.

Partly, I blame having taken off only one day in the entirety of 2015 (my birthday). As I read a lot while on vacation, a lack of time away from the grind meant a lack of reading time. And as the grind this year felt particularly intense, even day-to-day reading opportunities suffered.

I will say, though, that I enjoyed what I read in 2015 a great deal more than I enjoyed 2014’s selection. Last year, I scratched together a list of quality recommendations. This year, I struggled to pare them down. How did I get a better set of books in 2015? Perhaps I’ve improved at reading between the lines in reviews and not getting too enticed by attractive covers in book store displays. Though I can probably just credit luck.

As with every year, the books I rate as favorites in my end-of-year review caught in my consciousness, made me feel, made me think, and prompted me to start discussions. As I looked at the year’s stack, it surprised me to see how many books I’d recently read that I’d already mostly forgotten. If I can’t remember much about the book only months after I read it, I won’t rank it as a favorite.

Interestingly, despite such a heavy year, I can classify none of my favorite reads as “light.” I read plenty of so-definable books, yet none made the “best” list, even if I’d still recommend them. (So if you want pointers for a less intense read, let me know.)

Here goes the 2015 best-books list:

  • The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion. Didion may have hoped to discover a back way through grief in chronicling the twelve months after her husband died. Alas, this text affirms that no shortcut exists. Didion’s gem of a book—brief, with each page a gut-punch—testifies to grief’s harrowing journey and the scars it leaves. Even so, it assures readers that time assuages pain from even the worst traumas.
  • The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride. At times, this book felt like a slog. A former slave narrates, and his tale provides a painstaking step-by-step accounting of adventures with legendary abolitionist John Brown. Yet the end, even with historical record making the facts predictable, surprised me. The power of this book’s message goes beyond the injustices of slavery into the value and importance of even the most seemingly outlandish quests.
  • The Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante. In near stream-of-consciousness fashion, Ferrante details a woman’s mental and physical unhinging when her beloved husband confesses his infidelity and wish to leave the marriage. In keeping with the main character’s frantic distress, Ferrante’s novel reads at a fever pace. This resonant story captures perfectly a woman in emotional crisis.
  • Redeployment, by Phil Klay. Each short story in this volume—all snapshots of a military perspective during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—shook me. At each tale's close, I wanted to stop everything and process what I’d read. Yet I couldn’t put the book down—the stories compelled me too much; I felt too hungry for more. I haven’t stopped thinking or talking about Klay’s book, even months later.
  • The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, by Jeff Hobbs. Hobbs roomed with Peace during their time as undergraduates at Yale; after Peace’s murder in the illegal drug trade, Hobbs wrote this book in an attempt to understand how someone with a route out of a rough life ended up right back in the thick of it. This book explores the complex forces working against changing lives—and it still chews at my consciousness.

I won’t know if any of these texts made my all-time favorites list for years, when I can look back on them from a greater distance and with broader context. But from where I sit, months after closing their covers, I’d go beyond simply recommending to frankly encouraging you to read any—if not all—of them.

Which books did you love most in 2015?

Friday
Jul032015

The Best Books I Read in 2014

The full stack of 38 books I read from start to finish in 2014. January 1, 2015. Houston, Texas.

Typically, I read voraciously. Though not the fastest reader, preferring to think through the writing, plot, and message as I go and for a bit upon closing the cover—I always have a book underway and usually manage to get through one or two a week. (Not having a television helps. Try it.)

In 2014, I didn’t read nearly as extensively as usual. Whether of the positive or negative kind, things kept getting in the way. I read a mere thirty-eight books.

Yet, though I didn’t keep my usual pace, I enjoyed the books I read in 2014 more than I enjoyed the texts I encountered in 2013. (And no, reading less did not mean that, therefore, I appreciated each read more.)

In addition to the books I mentioned in my post about my favorite reads from the first half of the year—all of which I’ll still stand by as worthwhile reads—I’ve listed below some of my other truly memorable books from 2014. These books all stuck with me in one way or another, well after I put them down, popping to mind while on a run, or grocery shopping, or in conversation with a friend—even long after I’d started and finished other texts:

  • The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer: Maybe this coming-of-age and growing-up epic resonated with me because the ensemble cast shares my generation. Regardless, Wolitzer has done an amazing job of clearly defining each character, and the story arc feels beautiful and heartbreaking—just like life. 
  • The Light between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman: A slim yet powerful volume about how cascades of actions and inactions take a couple down paths of no return. An exploration into the complexity of “right” and “wrong.”
  • Love All, by Callie Wright: This book meditates on marriage, family, and interpersonal intimacy and the truth that try as we might—and believe what we will—we each live in an individual box with sharp edges and opaque walls. We never stop growing up, and the attendant growing pains never cease.
  • Life after Life, by Kate Atkinson: I hated the movie “Groundhog Day.” (Yes, I know it has a cult following. I don’t do cults.) Only at the behest of a vehement neighbor did I read this book—which seems to endlessly restart, especially in the first third—about the many ways a life can play. The book contemplates the myriad small choices we make each day that influence our lives, the lives of others, and even the course of history.
  • The Engagements, by J. Courtney Sullivan: The cover of this book prompted a friend’s incredulity about my reading “chick lit.” Yes, the book centers on the diamond industry—and the marketing of engagement rings in particular. Yet the setting (yep, pun intended) allows the author to muse on the culture of marriage through a suite of female characters, all of whom have made disparate choices that have equally disparate conclusions. The common thread? A single career ad woman named Frances Gerety who made the diamond “forever.”

As with the best of anything, each of these books has a flaw somewhere. (Oh hey. Another diamond pun.) Some of these novels had more than one problem—and some had issues bigger than others. Yet they all succeeded. We overrate perfection—which often sucks all the beauty and flavor from art and from life.

Did any make my all-time favorites list?

I won’t know until more time passes. For a book to rank as a favorite, I have to enjoy reading it while feeling mentally and psychologically challenged by its content. An all-time favorite has to give me a fun read while also provoking thought long after I’ve put it down—with bonus points for prompting me to close the back cover and hold it in my hands for a few moments, sad that I’ve finished the book.

What books did you love most in 2014?

Wednesday
Sep032014

Don’t Forget the Small Data

Mailboxes in a general store on Martha's Vineyard. November 2014.

So much flies at us that we miss the vast majority of it.

Zip, zing, swish: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, SnapChat, Google+, LinkedIn, e-mail, family and friend and colleague interruptions, text messages, advertisements, meetings to cover data-filled PowerPoint presentations, reports covering dozens of pages. Spreadsheets spanning dozens of tabs.

Heck, even regular mail. Telephone calls.

Far too easily can the wrong piece of information distract us—especially if it loudly and proudly bashes into our consciousness. Far too easily can we miss the important stuff—especially if it flies a little outside our normal fields of vision.

When feeling overwhelmed with information and unsure of where to look or what to trust, it helps to stanch the flood, quiet the cacophony, and think through how we can really get to the crux. Sometimes, as with so many things in life (including leadership and business savvy), the quieter, less obvious sources prove the most valuable:

Fiction

You prefer nonfiction? Fiction seems frivolous?

Think again.

As I’ve said before, fiction often has more truth than nonfiction. If you want to understand a culture, a place, a way of life, a different manner of thinking, and alternative perspectives, you couldn’t do better than to read stories written by people who live it, breathe it, and think it—especially if they’ve written them for a native audience.

Through reading stories written by people for their people, you’ll learn more about your subjects than you will conducting surveys and interviews, trying to decipher Twitter feeds, and reading sociology studies. In stories told to their peers, people don’t filter, they don’t sugar-coat, they don’t over-analyze, they don’t simplify. You’ll get the raw, real, straightforward insight you need.

History

Yes, it repeats. Maybe not in exactly the same way, but something happening today has happened before today in one incarnation or another.

Take a deep breath. Step back from the puzzle. See its bigger pattern. Find similar historical examples. Craft case studies. See learning lessons.

Develop game plans.

Principles

In my series of screeds about education, I wrote that I would rather hire someone taught the principles of a subject and given training in critical thinking and knowledge acquisition than I would hire someone with a technical skill that, given today’s constantly evolving workplace, will quickly grow obsolete.

When unsure of a course of action, go back to the basics: Review the fundamental principles of the area of business in question and determine how to apply them to your situation.

For example, FrogDog does strategic branding and marketing. Although the tactics may evolve over time—including all the social media and digital advertising I mentioned earlier in this post—the principles of marketing, of what convinces people to do something or to think about something differently, have stayed the same for decades, if not centuries. Perhaps we apply the principles via newfangled methods, but what we apply hasn’t changed all that much.

We’ve grown overly mesmerized by the idea of “big data”—the massive amounts of information collected from myriad sources that we can’t yet figure out how to crunch. Even if we could determine how to crunch it, we could analyze gazillions of bits in umpteen ways and still get nowhere, unsure with how to interpret what pops forward and stymied by what to do with our findings.

Don’t forget: The small data has worth, too. Maybe even greater worth than the bigger, more voluminous kind.

What information sources have you overlooked?

P.S.—William Pora suggested the topic for this post. You can find his blog here and his Twitter feed here. I’d recommend following both.

Thursday
Jul032014

Best Books I’ve Read in 2014—So Far

The best books I've read in 2014 at midyear. July 3, 2014.

As I did last summer, I’ve taken a midyear analysis of my book reading. (Which makes me wonder: Should I do the same critical review of my periodical perusal? Best articles written? Most memorable stories read? Hmm.)

So far this year, I’ve read twenty-two books in full, which puts me ahead of my pace from last year yet still behind my typical reading levels and lagging in terms of what I’d liked to have read by now. I need another book-filled vacation. Or just more time in the day, given how work’s currently all-consuming nature has left me little time to get basic life- and home-maintenance done—much less reading.

Have any of the books I’ve read made my all-time favorites list? Impossible to say. The test requires time. My criteria for top-level books go beyond just fun and compelling reads and the mechanics of writing well. For me, over all other qualifications, a book must stick in mind long after I’ve completed it for it to rank as one of the best I’ve ever read. Good books make me think while I read—and continue to pop into my mind for chewing long after I’ve closed the back cover.

This freshly after reading them, I can only mention the books I’ve read in the first half of 2014 that have stuck with me so far and that I’d recommend to others as worth the effort:

  • The Sports Gene, by David Epstein: How much of athletic prowess can we attribute to genetics and how much can we credit to hard work? Epstein’s book looks at the latest research and provides fascinating case studies to explode commonly held notions and explain new thinking about human athleticism. As a sporty nerd, I couldn’t put this book down and talked about it with everyone I met—even long after putting it back on the shelf.
  • Londonstani, by Gautam Malkani: I found this novel about the culture of young South Asians in London a little clunkily written and slow; Malkani could have tightened it a bit and elided certain sections. However, the cumulative effect of the tale and the world it exposes had incredible power over my imagination and has me thinking even still about the nature and psychology of youth, culture, and race relations.
  • Built to Sell, by John Warrilow: I have zero even remotely near-term plans to sell either of my businesses, but a friend so adamantly recommended this book that I had to give it a go. Warrilow validated some of my thinking and prodded me forward in a few stalled initiatives, which I needed. Even better, he provided illuminating new ideas to help build lasting value in my companies. I’ve since recommended his text to more than one other business executive as a “must read.”
  • Olive Kittredge, by Elizabeth Strout: Don’t read this book if experiencing any level of depression or ennui. Rarely do I suffer the blues, but I felt them simmering a few times while reading Strout’s collection of short stories connected around her central character. I had to put it down due to “heaviness” more than once. However, I found the book's exploration of life’s struggles and the energies often required to just keep going worth pursuing to the end. The images the book left and the musings it generated still linger.

In January, I’ll provide my full-year favorites for 2014, just as I did for 2013. Stay tuned.

What books have you most loved in 2014 so far?