Hmmm, it’s been more than 2 months since I last posted a book review. That’s because it’s been more than 2 months since I last read a book. The goal of reading 50 books in 2011 obviously won’t be made, not unless the next 20 books I read are all comic books. Embarrassing . . . .

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Book read: 365 Thank Yous

John Kralik, 365 Thank Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life (2010)

John Kralik has written a marvelously inspiring account of how his life changed from one of desperation to one of appreciation for all the good things in the world around him. At the end of 2007, he was facing problems. His girlfriend had broken up with him, he still hadn’t finalized his divorce from his second wife, some clients had refused to pay his attorney fees leaving him in danger of not making his payroll, he was being sued for malicious prosecution, and his apartment was a dump.

After hearing a voice say that unless he became grateful for what he had, his life would not improve, he began to wonder how he could do that when he had nothing to be grateful for. He slowly began to seize the few positive things that happened to him as opportunities to practice gratitude and came up with a goal to write a thank you note for each day of the year. This gradually caused him to look for good even in places and people where he could not see it, such as his ex-wife, and each act of gratitude towards others was a step further along to a life of appreciation and a determination to change for the better.

This is not a Pollyanna story. Many things do change for the better in his life, but his act of writing a year’s worth of thank you notes is not, and is not presented as, some quick self-help solution. Without the self-reflection that accompanied his writing, and without that provoking a change in his life, the act of writing thank you notes would likely have been for naught. The writing of thank you notes was the catalyst for his developing an appreciation of what he had in his life; it did not miraculously give him a new life.

I highly recommend this book.

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Book read: Learning to Walk

Sheilagh Conklin, Learning to Walk: From the Sofa to a Marathon in Nine Months (2007)

Sheilagh Conklin is a braver soul than I.

In February of 2006, my business partner, Karen, signed me on to the Children’s Tumor Foundation’s Marathon Team in anticipation of doing the Portland Marathon in October. Nothing could be more out of character for me. It was an outrageous idea with no basis in reality. In my mid-forties and more than a bit overweight, I was not in shape and not athletic. Not only that, I had no history of athleticism. Even as a kid or young adult I was not into sports, working out, or jogging. The closest I got was buying leggings in the early eighties after watching “Flashdance”.

As I began to tell people I was going to do the Portland Marathon, all asked the same question. Why? Good question, but I had no answer. Then one quiet day when all the kids were at school, I sat at my desk, stared at my blank computer screen, and asked myself the same question. “Why?”

I took a deep breath and wrote three words. I am fat.

Sheilagh Conklin has written a funny and painfully honest account of her attempt to train and complete the 2006 Portland Marathon. Compiled from the emails she sent to friends and family, the book recounts her journey as she changes from a person who gets winded walking to her neighbor’s house to a seasoned walker who considers anything under five miles to be “short.” She is stunningly candid about everything in her adventure, from her “before” description of herself to her relaxing for an hour in a porta-potty during the marathon to the development of her obsession with thong panties.

Honestly, I loved this book and found it inspiring, because I do recognize myself in the three words she wrote at the beginning. Reading her book makes me want to go and participate in an event myself! Although a half-marathon would probably be more appealing than a full marathon. Especially since I’d rather not use her duct-tape approach to bloody nipples.

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Book read: Moonwalking With Einstein

Joshua Foer, Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (2011)

Joshua Foer reported on the 2005 U.S. Memory Championship for Slate magazine. Intrigued by what he saw, and thinking he would improve his own bad memory, he decided to train for the 2006 championship, which he won. This is not a self-help book but a memoir and investigation into memory, its use and improvement, and the science behind that.

In many ways, we are losing our memories. The invention of writing allowed us to rely less on our memory, and now technology allows us to rely on gadgets to remember for us. How many phone numbers do you remember? Is that larger or smaller than the number of phone numbers in your cellphone? But the techniques used by Foer and other “mental athletes” are all understandable in concept and old in origin. It’s just that we in the past few centuries have gradually and almost entirely abandoned memory training. If we don’t “know” things, that is, if we don’t “remember” things, how can we learn?

This book is also a study in what we can do with discipline and perseverance. In many ways, the chapter I found the most thought-provoking was the tenth, “The Little Rain Man in All of Us.” Foer does meet with Kim Peek, the savant who was the basis for the “Rain Man” character in the film of the same name. Peek does not have a normal brain (he has a damaged  left hemisphere and lacks a corpus callosum), and Foer speculates that all of us have latent abilities in our right-brain that we just can’t usually access.

More interesting is the case of Daniel Tammet, a well-known savant and author. Tammet has been diagnosed with synesthesia so that he perceives numbers as having sensory attributes (e.g. shapes, color, feel). He performs complex multiplication and division mentally and has memorized pi to the 20,000th-odd digit. Yet Foer presents evidence that suggests Tammet is faking his savant-ness and is instead using memory techniques and mental math tricks to demonstrate his acclaimed abilities. Tammet may be a savant or he may be a mnemonist. But he is celebrated for being the former and would be ignored for being the latter. What does that say about memory for us today?

This is an engaging read that I highly recommend.

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OK, so the whole post-a-week thing hasn’t quite gone according to plan. (Or, the whole post-a-week thing has gone exactly according to plan, except for three missing weeks.) I’m sure I’ll post something later on that’s a bit fuller, but here are some random things for now:

My Mom lent me her (library) copy of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. My sister has already read the book, so I probably will also—I’m not sure how I feel about doing so. I was appalled by the excerpt of the book that ran in the Wall Street Journal. Even though it was purportedly not an actual excerpt but more of a piecing-together of entirely disparate parts of the book, the little I’ve heard since hasn’t really reassured me. And the excerpt stirred up some uncomfortable emotional memories. We’ll see.

If you work in a building that is going to “go green” by installing waterless urinals, I’d strongly urge you to get the powers-that-be to reconsider or else make sure that they’ve thought about and planned for the possible consequences. I came across an article in Wired magazine about waterless urinals and the problems that can arise with them. The problems described in the second half of the article have all happened at my university. Whatever money has been saved through reduced water use has been spent in plumber calls and replacing pipes. In the building I work in, we’ve had to replace the pipes from the urinals twice in two years—once replacing cast iron with PVC and the second time replacing the PVC with PVC rated to handle chemical waste. Since the university won’t be snaking out the urinal on a monthly basis, I’m betting the new PVC won’t last more than two years before it gets blocked.We also had to replace the under-floor in a second-floor restroom because it deteriorated due to the leaks from the corroding pipe. Waterless urinals are a bad idea.

Women, don’t feel left out. Waterless toilets don’t exist in modern buildings, but you too can “go green” by installing dual-flush toilets. Don’t do this! The problem with these, according to the plumbers who replaced the urinal pipes in our building, is that they get blocked much more easily than traditional, single-flush toilets. Why? To put it delicately, the #1 (low-water) flush is mistakenly used instead of the #2 (normal) flush. This results in non-liquid wastes getting stuck in the toilet’s trap.

On a better note, I really enjoyed this thought-provoking blog post from America magazine about Lady Gaga. Put simply, although she is not preaching an explicit Christian message, does she in fact proclaim the message of unconditional love and acceptance better than the Church does (if the Church can be said to do so at all)? The two greatest commandments are to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. Does Lady Gaga help and call people to live these out better than the Church does so? I’d say yes. (Important note: while the blog post is great, almost all of the comments to it are shit.)

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Pink and Libraries

I’m behind on my reading (OK, I haven’t even started the book I meant to read this week), so here are some very random thoughts (Post-a-Week, remember?):

  • P!nk—is awesome!
  • Librarianship is often described as a “pink” profession. In my (limited) experience, this is true. Certainly there are a lot of women in the profession.
  • If you’re interested in becoming a librarian, there’s a lot of advice you can find online. My advice would be that if you have trouble interacting professionally with women as colleagues or (especially) women in authority, librarianship would probably not be the best profession for you to enter. (Yes, I have seen this.)
  • Personality is a factor in library hiring decisions—one person I worked with described it as “looking for people who work well and play well with others.” This is especially important in smaller libraries, because everyone has to work closely with each other. On the other hand, this can be taken too far—it’s not like each and every one of your coworkers needs to be your BFF.
  • If you work in academic libraries, you may have noticed that there’s a class division between the faculty and everyone else. Sadly, this class division sometimes seems to occur in libraries when you have a division between the librarians and everyone else. I accept that it may possibly be a misuse of one’s training/education to do certain things (shelving, dusting, shelf-reading, loose-leaf filing), but on the other hand, sometimes stuff just needs to get done. Be humble.
  • Some libraries have screening interviews with a set script of questions they don’t deviate from and don’t ask follow-up questions about. There may be good reasons for this, but I always wonder why they bother to have an interview at all—wouldn’t it just be easier to email the job candidates that list of questions and have them all email their answers back?
  • Have I mentioned that P!nk is awesome?
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Book read: Zamenhof

Aleksander Korzhenkov, Zamenhof: The Life, Works and Ideas of the Author of Esperanto (2010)

Dr. L. L. Zamenhof, a Russian Jewish ophthalmologist, created Esperanto, an artificial language intended to serve as an international auxiliary language. Aleksander Korzhenkov’s biography is the first to appear in English since Marjorie Boulton’s 1960 biography. In this abridged translation of his original Esperanto bibliography, Korzhenkov presents Zamenhof’s life, with an emphasis on his origin and his spiritual beliefs. I wasn’t terribly familiar with Zamenhof’s life beyond a brief outline, so much of the story Korzhenkov presents was a revelation to me.

In particular, I was greatly suprised by the details related in Zamenhof’s transition from Zionism to Hillelism to Homaranism. I had always thought of Homaranism as a generic belief in the brotherhood of all peoples. Korzhenkov makes it quite clear that the initial religious version of Hillelism (soon renamed to Homaranism) was quite radical. In short, all traces of national, ethnic, relgious, and tribal characteristics and beliefs are to give way to common, neutral practices and beliefs!

I was also surprised by Zamenhof’s belief that the later version of his language did have flaws that should be fixed. Korzhenkov relates this in the description of the Idist schism, the presentation of which I found a bit confusing and would have liked more detail about. This might also because the brief, popular accounts I had read before simplistically portray Louis de Beaufront as the villainous mastermind in this, whereas the actual history is more complex.

I liked this brief (90-odd pages) biography and would recommend it to others looking for a brief introduction to Zamenhof’s life that gives some account of its complexity. However, reading this short work makes me wish for a more in-depth treatment, and I am eagerly awaiting the forthcoming biography of Zamenhof by Esther Schor.

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