Saturday, October 17, 2009

50BC09 #15: Blue Smoke and Murder

Blue Smoke and Murder (St. Kilda Consulting, #4) Blue Smoke and Murder by Elizabeth Lowell

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
While I don't hold trade paperback mysteries to the standards of great literature, I do want a good mystery. This one starts well, but the anti-climactic and obvious ending made the last several pages rather dull. Lowell does get credit, however, for a female protagonist that is strong and independent, but doesn't have to be a man-hater. While a bit typecast as the "outdoorsy" woman, river guide Jill Breck is fun to read as she struggles with her intuition vs. her intellect.

50BC09 #14: Tea Time for the Traditionally Built

Tea Time for the Traditionally Built (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, #10) Tea Time for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This latest offering of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series is a fun read and a chance to engage further with the wonderful characters of Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi. The mystery, as in most of these books, is actually a secondary plot point, and we get a much better sense of attachment to the regular characters than in some other books in the series. What is also striking is the development of relationships between the characters: for the first time, we see a real friendship between Precious and Grace. Likewise, the book ventures into the more emotional terrain of love between Precious and Mr. JLB Matekoni. Generally, the characters are more dimensional than in prior installments and this move away from caricature is definitely a good direction for the series.

Monday, July 27, 2009

50BC09 #13: Running Theaters

Running Theaters: Best Practices for Leaders and Managers Running Theaters: Best Practices for Leaders and Managers by Duncan Webb

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
As books about performing arts administration go, this one wasn't bad. Webb consolidates a lot of good research regarding theater management. However, what was missing was synthesis of the many, many, anecdotes offered by theater managers across the country. Webb's "let them speak for themselves" sometimes left me hanging for a larger point.

There are several chapters, however, which provide a decent overview and would be good inclusions in a course reader. The "Facility Development" and "Audience Development"chapters are particularly good for this purpose.

50BC09 #12: Outliers

Outliers Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Malcolm Gladwell has done it again. In a book both provocative and informative, Gladwell helps us to understand achievement is not only about hard work, but cultural legacy, and being in the right place at the right time. Indeed, when a person is born can predetermine their chances at a place on an elite hockey team. Where a person is born can determine their ability to commandeer a jumbo jet if need be.

Gladwell's revelations may be startling for some, but what is most impressive is his ability to talk about culture in a way that is straightforward and not burdened by politically correct parleying. In a climate where we are supposed to be having unencumbered discussions about culture, Gladwell's book is a step in the right direction. He looks at several examples of cultural legacy with an objective, yet not passive, eye.

As other reviewers have commented, there is a noticeable absence of female "Outliers." While Gladwell does have a wonderful section about his grandmother, it is disheartening that Gladwell didn't take the opportunity to examine a well-known female outlier, particularly since it would have supported the "working against hardship" vs. "timing" hypothesis so well.

That said, we would do well as a society to take notice of what Gladwell reveals and summarizes in this book, as it largely accounts for huge achievement gaps in our educational landscape and our inability to move freely about the socio-economic strata in both the world and the U.S.

50BC09 #11: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery


It is rare that I am so enticed by the back cover of a book that I pick it up in the store, but when I read the synopsis of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I did just that. This book is now in my top five favorite books of all time.
The characters are enchanting, yet real. While I found twelve-year-old Paloma to be a bit overwritten at times, her fellow protagonist, Madame Michel, is so engaging and at once heartbreaking and loveable, that the precociousness of Paloma can be forgiven.
And the book is heartbreaking, but not because of the tragedies, but because of the joy. Life, in all its guises, leaps off the pages and finds places in the reader's heart that may have long been hidden. It is that kind of book.
I'm reticent to say "everyone should read this book" because I think it resonated with me according to my life experiences and my personality (I am Paloma and Madame Michel both). I'd give it a try, however. And I'd stick with it...if the intellectual meanderings of Paloma and Renée get tiresome, read quickly until Ozu enters the scene. Then, if you liked The Time Traveler's Wife, I think you'll find the rest of the book to be utterly compelling.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

50BC09 #10: Farewell Waltz

GENRE: Fiction
EDITION: Originally published in English as The Farewell Party. This edition published 1998 by Harper Perennial. Trans. by Aaron Asher
PAGES: 278
Farewell Waltz Farewell Waltz by Milan Kundera

rating: 4 of 5 stars
In typical Kundera fashion, you aren't sure whether to laugh or cry while reading this novel. Kundera likes to teeter on the edge of blasphemy, always pulling the reader back with the sheer humanness of his characters. While this Aaron Asher translation was released here in the states in 1998, it was originally written in 1969-70, and in that context, becomes a far more controversial and provocative novel. It is a good read, and full of poetic and prosaic gems. Kundera hands the reader the truths of life on a platter, accompanied by the Dom Pérignon of his prose.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

50BC09 #9: The Renaissance Soul

The Renaissance Soul: Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just One The Renaissance Soul: Life Design for People with Too Many Passions to Pick Just One by Margaret Lobenstine

rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a book that is definitely geared toward those in the market for answers. While the author provides good information and some of the exercises were helpful, I felt the anecdotes became tedious as did her spectrum markers of Mozart and Ben Franklin. A lot of her work is an adaptation of Getting Things Done (GTD) principles (which are themselves consolidations of other work). For example, what Lobenstine calls "intention markers," GTDers will know as "next actions." The "Focal Points Worksheet" serves the same purpose as GTD's "Weekly Review"

I do think it will be a helpful book for anyone feeling guilty about having multiple career paths or life goals...or for those who just don't know what it is they want to do. Lobenstine's "PRISM Test" is a good basic set of questions to ask oneself when embarking upon a professional or personal goal: Price, Reality, Integrity, Specificity, and Measurability. The basic point of the book is to free "Renaissance Souls" from the fetters of career rigidity.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

50BC09 #8: The Thief of Venice

The Thief of Venice: A Homer Kelly Mystery (Homer Kelly Mysteries) The Thief of Venice: A Homer Kelly Mystery by Jane Langton

rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am a fan of the Homer Kelly mysteries, but this one bothered me due to the completely atypical behavior of one of the characters. If this development had been explained or had been more central to the story line, it would have made for a better book. But Langton detonates this bizarre plot point without worrying about the shrapnel. Those unfamiliar with the series/characters will probably not find it as problematic.
That said, the other elements of the mystery and the visualization of Venice are well-executed and carefully researched. The line drawings bring the Piazza San Marco and other Venetian landmarks to life, as in a private travel journal.

50BC09 #7: The Student Conductor

Student Conductor Student Conductor by Robert Ford

rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm often very skeptical of novels with music as a centerpiece for their story line. I find the musical descriptions contrived and overwrought, as if the author is trying to convince the reader that he/she is an expert in all things musical. One of the benefits of this first novel by Robert Ford is that the author has the skills and experience to write convincingly about music without the pedantic, over-researched feel so present in other works.

Ford successfully creates vivid characters who are bound together not only by their relationship to music, but by their secrets. The author sensitively weaves historical elements (the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example) into a multi-layered narrative. The main protagonist, thirty-year-old American conductor Cooper Barrow, embarks on a quest to face his fears by studying with a master conductor in Germany. What he finds is a Germany built on secrets and fears, trying to demolish and rebuild at the same time. In the middle of it all is the enigmatic oboist Petra Vogel, whose own dark past comforts Barrow with its refreshing relativism.

These characters dance together to a soundtrack of Brahms, a composer who is subject to their idolatry, historicism, and emotional baggage. Ford unapologetically navigates through the conducting and orchestra worlds, framing the shades of the human soul with the best of its potential.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

50BC09 #6: Making It All Work

50BC09 #6: Making It All Work: Winning At The Game of Work and the Business of Life
Author: David Allen
Pages: 305
Year: Viking, 2008
Making It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and Business of Life
rating: 3 of 5 stars

For those who have read and/or familiar with Allen's Getting Things Done, this is a great follow-up. If you like Allen's strategies for organization and general productivity, but occasionally find yourself "falling off the wagon," this book will help.

The book elucidates the major mindsets crucial to GTD, but sometimes gets too wrapped up in its philosophical approach. The "horizons of focus" will cloud your system if you worry about implementing them as actual components, rather than a way to encapsulate the entire GTD process. If you are interested in GTD as a system, I recommend that you start with the book of the same title, rather than this one.

The book contains some very helpful appendices, including a "project planning trigger list" to make sure that your mind dumps are complete, leaving no stone unturned.

Allen uses this book to address his critics, and does an admirable job. Much of the criticism of GTD has been aimed at purists or those who take Allen's ideas to an extreme. Allen allows for a certain amount of flexibility and custom-tailoring (indeed, mandates it) and this book will help you do that.

View all my reviews.

50BC09 #5: The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

50BC09 #5: The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
Author: Alex Ross
Pages: 684
Press: Picador, 2008 (ppbck ed.)
genre: non-fiction, music criticism

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was skeptical going in...not because I haven't enjoyed Alex Ross' writing in the New Yorker, but because good music criticism does not a music historian make. My doubts were unfounded. I took a risk and used this book as the text for my Music in the Twentieth Century course (for non-majors) and I'm never looking back.

Ross keeps a general chronological outline, but centers a century's worth of music around a political and artistic narrative. One of the more intriguing aspects is his use of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus as a recurring presence, drawing an inexorable link between compositional history and Faustian endeavors. However, in most cases, we see composers who battle with the Mephistopheles of totalitarianism not as raving lunatics, but as artists torn between their commitment to art and general survival.

The author is unafraid to talk about the actual music, painting vivid descriptions, and unfettering important musical concepts for a general audience. His free online audio guide is a beautiful supplement to his discussions in the book (and serves to fill in some of the necessary "gaps" ). Ross makes intriguing choices that run counter to traditional histories of twentieth century music (entire chapters devoted to Sibelius and Britten, for example), but makes a strong case for a socio-political approach rather than a canonical, or "great master" approach. Composers like Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenberg are not confined to time frames, but reappear out of the tapestry when their music echoes in the ears of compositional trends.The twentieth century appears as a pre-existent soundscape, whose tones, rhythms, and harmonies are manipulated by the various composers traversing the various hills and streams of modernity.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

50BC09 #4: Shadows on the Ivy

Shadows on the Ivy: An Antique Print Mystery (Antique Print Mysteries) Shadows on the Ivy: An Antique Print Mystery by Lea Wait

rating: 4 of 5 stars
genre: mystery (series)
pages: 247

Like a Jane Langton mystery, this book is an intellectual's mystery, packed with facts regarding Currier & Ives prints, nineteenth century depictions of African-Americans, and miscellaneous background on a variety of artists and lithographs. However, with the exception of one classroom scenario, author Lea Watt manages to seamlessly blend historical information and mystery. A classic whodunit, complete with multiple motives and false trails. Maggie Summer is a conflicted and interesting protagonist-sleuth, who I look forward getting to know better in the rest of the series.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

50BC09 #3: Wheat That Springeth Green

Wheat That Springeth Green Wheat That Springeth Green by J. F. Powers

1988, Washington Square Press, 335 pages
rating: 3 of 5 stars
I wanted to feel less ambivalent about this book. It is indeed humorous, but sometimes the characters are caricatures, so much so that the humor becomes less witty. Joe's early days in seminary are a study in the comedy of youthful bravado, poking fun at the earnestness of a sometimes misplaced faith.

While the comedy does at times seem forced, Powers' satirical observations are unmistakable and unapologetic. Ironies come out of hiding, like the dustbunnies underneath Joe's Barcalounger.

View all my reviews.

50BC09 #2: How To Write A Lot

How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing by Paul J. Silvia

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Paul Silvia's book is a humorous bit of sound advice on how to produce plentiful bits of academic writing. His basic premise centers around the creation of a writing schedule that is immutable and permanent. Whether you spend four weekly hours or ten, Silvia contends that the consistency will produce results far faster than if you should wait for inspiration to strike.

It wasn't without some guilty recognition that I read Chapter 2, "Specious Barriers to Writing a Lot". However, Silvia keeps the tone pragmatic, rather than condemnatory, and suggests various methods of tracking one's progress and "carrot-on-a-stick" rewards.

While I am sure Silvia's methods will work (I've had success thus far), I do wonder about academics who have children. The needs of children do not often fall into a schedule, and I can see that parents might find maintaining a strict writing schedule more difficult. I do know a few colleagues who would find Silvia's approach an oversimplification of what it takes to write.

I recommend this book because it is a quick read and contains some valuable and consolidated insights into writing productively. I think he is overly negative about the act of writing (some of us DO enjoy writing), but addresses it as a necessary evil for those who may not be so inclined. While it is geared toward post-graduates and faculty, it certainly would help anyone engaged in writing a dissertation, particularly in the humanities or social sciences.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

50BC09 #1: The Leper's Bell

The Leper's Bell (Sister Fidelma Mysteries) The Leper's Bell by Peter Tremayne

rating: 3 of 5 stars

While the Sister Fidelma series does not have to be read in series order, I do recommend it. I clearly skipped some major biographical details between Leper's Bell and the last one I read, and it detached me from the main character more than if this has been my first Sister Fidelma book.

I'd also recommend ignoring the list of "Principal Characters" that prefaces the book, unless you want some clues very early on in the story. That said, Tremayne is masterful enough to throw a curve ball just when you think you've figured it out.

In a way, this particular book seems more a Brother Eadulf mystery than a Sister Fidelma mystery, as we are given much more insight into his character and he propels the plot forward. Fidelma is weakened by the tragic kidnapping of her own son, but Eadulf is at odds with seemingly just about everyone as he is an outsider, a Saxon. Tremayne tries to use these weaknesses to develop his characters, but there is something missing, particularly when it comes to Fidelma. We never actually see her during her time of mourning, but instead only hear of it from Eadulf. When she does appear, she is the stoic, logical Sister Fidelma of the series, but given the story line, she seems mismatched. She wonders (somewhat obtusely) about the fiery outbursts of Eadulf and has only glimmers of introspection at her own excessive reliance upon logic.

That aside, the book is full of intrigue, duplicity, and all the other essential ingredients of a good mystery. Readers familiar with the series may find the religious-political historical commentary a bit redundant, but in this book we get a better glimpse of Eadulf's theology, rather than Fidelma's. In that sense, this is one of the more engaging books in the series, as Brother Eadulf's religious views challenge some of Sister Fidelma's, making for much more interesting interaction between the characters.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Review: Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics

Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics: How to Get Great Flavors from Simple Ingredients Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics: How to Get Great Flavors from Simple Ingredients by Ina Garten

rating: 5 of 5 stars
I've made three recipes from this book in the last week and have found them all OUTSTANDING: Tuscan Lemon Chicken, Pasta with Pecorino & Pepper, and Orange-Pecan Wild Rice. I like Garten's non-nonsense approach to cooking, relying on fresh, basic ingredients. She has several wonderful lists in her book, including "Top 10 Things NOT to serve at a Dinner Party" and "10 no-cook things to serve for Dessert." Her recipes are well-written, and include "tips" to fill in the blanks (e.g. HOW to toast pecans in a recipe that calls for toasted pecans).

This is a great book for anyone who likes to cook, or more importantly, likes to eat!