Book Review: Sleeping with Patty Hearst by Mary Lambeth Moore

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A slightly different take on one of my favorite books . . .

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A good reviewer should always disclose any biases up front. Get ready for a deluge of biases.

Because I had the good fortune to be born into a situation where free lodging in France was always available and because I hooked up with a global company that loves to piss away money on international conferences that accomplish absolutely nothing, I’ve done a lot of traveling in my nearly thirty-two years of existence. I’ve been to twenty-seven countries and five continents, and while I might like to visit Australia someday, I have no intention of literally freezing my tits off in Antarctica.

I’ve interacted with a variety of cultures, from Algerian to Argentinian, from Moroccan to Mexican. There were certain places where I felt comfortable and other places where I was quite aware that I was a hopelessly out-of-place American chick. But of all the cultures I have encountered, I have…

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Book Review: The Hopkins Touch by David Roll

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Facilitators are often faceless people who work behind the scenes to help teams and individuals work through their choices and come to agreement. Big biographies are usually about the famous players in the more visible positions. Americans always pay more attention to the quarterback than the offensive linemen who make it possible for the quarterback to rack up the yards.

This unfortunate situation will be somewhat remedied in early 2013, when a new biography about one of history’s great facilitators hits the shelves (or e-shelves).

I was fortunate enough to read an advance copy of The Hopkins Touch by David Roll, an outstanding biography of a unique and exceptional person whose existence has been forgotten by many Americans. Harry Hopkins was considered the “man behind the throne” during the FDR years, wielding enormous power and influence in both established and undefined roles, in both domestic and foreign policy. The sources of his success were his crystal clear insight into reality (Churchill called him “Mr. Root of the Matter”), an unusually strong drive and superb facilitation skills. When Hopkins was given an assignment, whether that assignment was getting needed relief into the hands and mouths of the needy or negotiating agreements with men as complex and distrustful as Stalin, he got the thing done. While his education and early experience in social work accounted for some of his loftier ideals, his powerful sense of commitment to the task drove him to his great achievements.

David Roll proves to be an excellent biographer, balancing admiration for the man’s truly great accomplishments with fair criticism of his mistakes. As is appropriate for a biography about a man who worked more behind the scenes than in the public eye, The Hopkins Touch tells the larger story of the major players on whose behalf Hopkins toiled, particularly the Big Three (Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin). While Hopkins is never far away from the narrative, Mr. Roll never allowed himself to be constrained solely to his subject. The stories and background information he provides concerning the titanic personalities of the time are both appropriate and well-researched. Best of all, Mr. Roll managed to write a very readable narrative about a complicated character working in a complex period in world history; the book never feels too heavy or too light.

The relevance of this book to our current period in human history cannot be understated. We live in a time when the political atmosphere is so poisonous and polarized that it seems impossible to get anything accomplished. We could definitely use a skilled facilitator like Harry Hopkins—someone with the skills, dedication and insight to build trust between enemies and guide them to worthy accomplishments.

There are many lessons in the book for those of you who, like me, spend a great deal of our time engaged in the art of facilitation. Here are the lessons I found most relevant:

1. It’s not about you. It’s never about you. It’s always about helping them reach the solutions they want to reach.

2. All successful facilitators have an unyielding commitment to discovering the truth. The skill of a facilitator lies in helping others discover the truth, and to do that, a facilitator can never impose his or her perception of truth on a client.

3. There are times when a facilitator must shift out of neutral to move people out of their stuckness. The key to a successful shift is to remember that it’s not an opportunity for you to vent your frustrations on the stubborn asses you’re dealing with. Remember: it’s not about you.

4. A great facilitator prepares for all possibilities but must remember that the best solutions are invented on the spot through honest dialogue that makes it safe for people to change their minds.

The Hopkins Touch is available for pre-order on Amazon.

"Harry L. Hopkins as he left for England ...

“Harry L. Hopkins as he left for England vis Lisbon today” / World-Telegram photo by Palumbo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Book Review: Summer of Shadows by Jonathan Knight (via Goodreads)

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Summer of Shadows: A Murder, A Pennant Race, and the Twilight of the Best Location in the NationSummer of Shadows: A Murder, A Pennant Race, and the Twilight of the Best Location in the Nation by Jonathan Knight

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After reading three lengthy histories and Margaret Atwood’s depressing dystopia, all I wanted was to relax with a baseball book from the pre-DH era when baseball was truly the national pastime, when the sun shined on men and women in hats and bleacher seats were under a dollar.

Summer of Shadows gave me so much more! First, it is a great baseball book about the 1954 Cleveland Indians, the team that set the American League record for wins prior to flaming out in the World Series. Jonathan Knight captures the essence of the team and its journey, giving us enough in-game action without burying us in statistical detail. The author’s gift for making scene and character come alive in tightly-written paragraphs is truly exceptional; the two chapters devoted to the doubleheader conquest of the evil Yankees are baseball writing at its best.

But Mr. Knight does not limit his talents to the ultimately disappointing history of the Indians. That summer also featured the murder of the young wife of a physician by the name of Sam Sheppard, whose story gripped Cleveland as tightly as the pennant race. Knight uses this tragic but compelling tale of “newspaper justice” to draw attention to the elements that drove a once-great city (“The Best Location in the Nation”) into moral and physical decline. The goal is ambitious, the challenge significant, but Mr. Knight pulls it off with aplomb. Never once did I feel that he was stretching too hard to weave these three superficially disparate themes together; instead, his mastery of narrative provides us with a tight, page-turning story that is difficult to put down and consistently stimulates thought and emotion. We enter a time of both innocence and naiveté at the start of 1954 and leave it with a greater understanding of the cultural causes behind Cleveland’s tragic decline, much of which lies in the darker side of human nature.

There are few books I bother to re-read, but Summer of Shadows will definitely make that exclusive list.

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Book Review: Original Soundtrack Not Available by Ara Harris

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Poetry has become something of a literary cul-de-sac for most people. There’s a reason for that: most modern poetry is either excessively intellectual (T. S. Eliot and his ilk) or excessively wow-look-at-how-outré-I-can-be (Ginsburg and followers). Both camps come across as if they possess deep wisdom and insights into mystery that the common folk can’t possibly comprehend.

Sorry, whether you’re Mitt Romney or Ezra Pound, an elitist is an elitist and I have no use for you.

Garage poetry is a loose genre consisting of aspiring poets who attempt to remedy this situation the same way Nirvana blasted through the overproduced garbage that people listened to throughout the 1980’s with In Utero and Nevermind. Unfortunately, most garage poetry also winds up in a cul-de-sac as well, simply because many wannabe poets don’t have the sensual talent required to create great poetry. They’re often loud and love to draw attention to outrageous rearrangements of syntax, but most of the time, there is no there there.

Fortunately, we now have Ara Harris, whose first collection, Original Soundtrack Not Available, is now available at Lulu.com. Ms. Harris is a woman with sincere sensual talent, a keen awareness of absurdity and, most importantly, restrained but powerful empathy for many of the lost and lonely characters she creates.

Original Soundtrack Not Available is primarily a collection of prose poems. Some are obviously autobiographical, but Ms. Harris maintains a solid aesthetic distance between subject and object in those situations, without turning too cold in the process. Many of the best poems deal with the sensual-emotional experience of growing up in a boring-as-shit place—places that most of us who grew up in them want to forget. Ms. Harris’ remarkable talent is that she awakens our memory through exceptional sensual description so that we learn that no, life wasn’t entirely dead in the burbs and backwaters; even though the situations seem small and silly in comparison, they were what we knew as life.

You get this right from the start with two brilliant pieces, “Death in a Small Town” and “Welcome Home, Population 3000.” Ms. Harris nails the essence of the experience with lines like “Anything tastes like small town, when you drink it out of Tupperware” and “the fence around your house looks like braces around teeth that don’t mind being crooked” and “He took so much time; now he’s suddenly late for nothing.” The tone is remarkably free of judgment without being devoid of feeling; the experiences simply exist. Like many of the characters who inhabit these towns, they do not self-reflect, they do not see anything wrong, they simply move on to the next predictable experience. While this is why perceptive sensualists have to leave these towns, the poet needs to remember that physical distance is there to help create an aesthetic distance so that when you tell us about your experience, we don’t drown in a flood of unprocessed emotions. Ara Harris gets that: yeah, the experienced sucked, but this isn’t about me—it’s about us. Other poems in the book reinforce this exceptional talent—“Get Your Ticket,” “Fresh Cut Grass” and “The Park After Rain.”

Her poetic vignettes about relationships and encounters are also compelling: “Temporary Amnesia,” “Pixilated,” “Thirty-Seconds,” and “A Good Movie.” There also two powerful poems that may be thematically out-0f-context, but sync beautifully with Ms. Harris’ narrative and sensual talent: “Unholy Cost” and “Last Seen Coming Home on Time.” These gave me the confidence that while Ms. Harris could likely make a career out of being the “poet of the shitty small town,” she has the intellect and curiosity to broaden her horizons.

Personally, I hope she follows whatever butterfly crosses her path, because gifts like hers are rare. Original Soundtrack Not Available is not a perfect collection of poems; after all, this his her first book. Some of the urban poems come across flat; that may be because the genre has become flooded. The photo poem could have used a higher quality printer. Quibbles aside, I hope that the experience of sharing this first book with the public will be a validating one that gives Ara Harris the confidence to keep reflecting, feeling, perceiving . . . and writing.