Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Though I didn’t know anything about the book, the title, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and the author’s exotic-sounding three-part name were familiar to me for years. I’ve now read the book, but I don’t feel I am familiar enough with Hurston’s historical context or the intervening decades of relevant literary criticism to fully appreciate its significance.

For a plot summary and other thoughts, see below.

Continue reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Brilliant Project Management by Stephen Barker and Rob Cole

Brilliant Project Management is a concise, general book with some good psychological insights in it.

What Stood Out

Some of the insights are more or less specifically applicable only to project management. For example, part of Chapter Six (Leading Effective Teams) is about the fallacy according to which people add manpower to speed up projects, with the result that the projects are actually slowed down, due to the extra work needed to bring the new people up to speed. (The Mythical Man-Month is a whole book about this one idea!)

However, other insights seem to have broader application. For example, the beginning of Chapter Nine (Making Use of Lessons Learned) reminds readers, in a manner of speaking, that a ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Mistakes, in other words, are inevitable. The chapter goes on to describe how best to learn from both positive and negative experience and from the experience of others as well as one’s own. The specific suggestions for interacting in offices could apply to a variety of jobs; the underlying insights could apply to personal life as well.

Chapter Four (Delivering Quality) reminds readers that a good solution to a problem is neither under-engineered nor over-engineered. Providing a more elegant, elaborate, or complete solution than is strictly required may not seem like a mistake but in fact wastes valuable time and money. In fact, it’s good to keep in mind that it’s generally a bad idea to put more effort into something than it deserves. Done ‘well enough’ is done.

Chapter Five (Resource Management) reminds readers that something that is “about 90% complete” is almost certainly not, chronologically speaking. As we know, the last 20% of the work often takes 80% of the time!

When and Why I Read It

Bought it cheap because it looked like it would be relevant to past, current, and possibly future job functions.

Genre: Non-fiction (business)
Date started / date finished:  17-Jul-16 to 18-Aug-16
Length: 154 pages
ISBN: 9780273707936 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2007
Amazon link: Brilliant Project Management

The Romance of Scholars’ Stones by Kemin Hu

Beautiful color photographs of scholars’ rocks and other Chinese scholars’ objects accompany a series of essays.

What Stood Out

Literally meaning “without action,” [the Daoist doctrine of] wuwei is best interpreted not as doing nothing but rather acting spontaneously, in accordance with one’s nature. A tree for example, was not seen as “trying to grow,” it simply grew because it was natural to do so. Likewise, Song literati attempted to incorporate this quality in both their lives and their aesthetic judgments. (2)

Oddly, this reminds me of Now, Discover Your Strengths, a book that says  people should spend more time doing the things they are particularly good at (the things that come naturally).

When and Why I Read It

My husband bought several books by Kemin Hu to learn more about Chinese scholar’s rocks. I’m interested in them, too.

Genre: Non-fiction (Asian history)
Date started / date finished:  9-Aug-16 to 13-Aug-16
Length: 148 pages
ISBN: 9781891640612 (hardcover)
Originally published in: 2011
Amazon link: The Romance of Scholars’ Stones

Related Books

  • Modern Chinese Scholars’ Rocks by Kemin Hu
  • Spirit Stones by Kemin Hu
  • Scholars’ Rocks in Ancient China by Kemin Hu

…and someone is selling scholars’ rocks on Amazon.

The curse of the invariably heavy suitcases

Books and rocks are just about the heaviest things one could imagine bringing back from a vacation, and yet books and rocks are exactly what we brought back from our latest trip to the opposite side of the planet.

In fact, bringing back books and/or rocks from trips is fairly typical for us. What made this trip’s haul particularly absurd was that the books were about rocks.

Cranford by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

I did not particularly enjoy Cranford.

The work felt like a series of installments, which is in fact what it was. Though not every serially published novel feels so choppy, Cranford lacks the kind of plot one tends to expect of a novel. The narrator is a character in the story, but she isn’t the protagonist and plays almost no role in the events she relates. Her name, Mary Smith, is correspondingly bland.

On a positive note, the text contains the word ‘sesquipedalian’, which I’m not sure I’ve seen anywhere else but in an intentionally esoteric children’s book, Wally the Wordworm, that I had an audio cassette of when I was a kid.

What Stood Out

The whole town of genteel old women makes a virtue of necessity:

There, economy was always “elegant,” and money-spending always “vulgar and ostentatious”; a sort of sour-grapeism which made us very peaceful and satisfied.

I can’t decide whether this bit about the string is pure silliness or whether it’s a bit of distilled realism—one of those comic insights about life that is not exaggerated at all:

String is my foible.  My pockets get full of little hanks of it, picked up and twisted together, ready for uses that never come.  I am seriously annoyed if any one cuts the string of a parcel instead of patiently and faithfully undoing it fold by fold.  How people can bring themselves to use india-rubber rings, which are a sort of deification of string, as lightly as they do, I cannot imagine.  To me an india-rubber ring is a precious treasure.  I have one which is not new—one that I picked up off the floor nearly six years ago.  I have really tried to use it, but my heart failed me, and I could not commit the extravagance.

Here’s a bit of perspicacity and honorable stubbornness on the part of a serving-woman named Martha:

“I’ll not listen to reason,” she said, now in full possession of her voice, which had been rather choked with sobbing.  “Reason always means what someone else has got to say.  Now I think what I’ve got to say is good enough reason; but reason or not, I’ll say it, and I’ll stick to it.”

When and Why I Read It

After seeing a miniseries of Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters and then reading Wives and Daughters, I thought I’d try Gaskell’s other fiction while traveling with my Kindle.

Genre: fiction (classic literature)
Date started / date finished:  21-Jul-16 to 30-Jul-16
Length: 178 pages
ISBN: Project Gutenberg 394
Originally published in: 1951
Amazon link: Cranford

Related Media

  • Cranford miniseries
  • Wives and Daughters miniseries
  • North and South miniseries
  • Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell
  • North and South by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell
  • Mary Barton by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell
  • Ruth by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell
  • Sylvia’s Lovers by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

Do’s and Taboos of Using English around the World by Roger E. Axtell

Basically, this book is full of meaningless trivia on a subject I happen to like. It was amusing but not deep or scholarly.

I learned, among other things, that:

  • “blimey” is a contraction of “God blind me!” (60)
  • “biro” is pronounced “by-row” and refers to the kind of ballpoint pen invented by Lazlo Biro (60)
  • to express disbelief in German, say “My hamster is scrubbing the floor.” (88)

When and Why I Read It

Bought it cheap in Colorado.

Genre: nonfiction (reference / language)
Date started / date finished:  08-Jul-16 to 17-Jul-16
Length: 202 pages
ISBN: 9780785825289 (hardcover)
Originally published in: 1995
Amazon link: Do’s and Taboos of Using English around the World

Writing for Children and Teenagers by Lee Wyndham

Although writing is a timeless sort of endeavor, the technology we use for writing and research has changed a lot in recent decades, so much of the discussion of process in this book is laughably out of date. On the other hand, there’s some good information here about the internal mechanics of story.

When and Why I Read It

Bought it cheap in Colorado because I write for kids.

Genre: Non-fiction (writing)
Date started / date finished:  7-Jul-16 to 13-Jul-16
Length: 258 pages
ISBN: 0898793475 (paperback)
Originally published in: 1968/1989
Amazon link: Writing for Children and Teenagers (only available used)

The Chocolate Touch by Patrick Skene Catling

This book is alive and kicking after more than sixty years, so it must be popular with kids… but to an adult reader, The Chocolate Touch is not going to come across as subtle. In any way whatsoever.

John Midas (yes, like King Midas who turned everything to gold) eats too much candy. And it’s not just that, he’s selfish about it, too. So he gets a magical come-uppance by means of a mysterious coin that he spends in a mysterious store on a mysterious box of chocolates containing only one chocolate that makes everything he puts to his mouth turn to chocolate—including, as you might guess from this spectacularly badly chosen cover illustration, his mother. Then he repents and all is well again. (Didactic, much?)

The bright spot is this line spoken by John’s teacher Miss Plimsole in English class: “The more words you know, the more exactly you can think.” True dat.

But then the vocabulary words for the day are ‘avarice’, ‘indigestion’, ‘acidity’, ‘unhealthiness’, ‘moderation’, and ‘digestibility’. Hm. Do you think these words might be related to the book’s message at all? Even the character notices! “[I]t seemed to John as though they all had a special bearing on his present uncomfortable condition.” Sigh.

Then there are the names: John Midas, Doctor Cranium, Mrs. Quaver (the music teacher), Susan Buttercup (a classmate and friend with yellow curls). I am rolling my eyes.

Still, I think the book does a great job of conveying how the boy feels about chocolate, how he feels when the magic starts to happen, how he feels when it starts to go bad, how he feels as it gets worse, and how he feels when the crisis is over.

When and Why I Read It

Bought it at a thrift store in Colorado because I remembered reading it or at least seeing it when I was younger.

Genre: illustrated children’s chapter book
Date started / date finished:  03-Jul-16 to 03-Jul-16
Length: 87 pages
ISBN: 0553152874 (1984 paperback)
Originally published in: 1952
Amazon link: The Chocolate Touch

Related Books

I like Edward Eager’s 1950s ordinary-kids-with-magic-gone-wrong stories better. And the 1900s ones by Edith Nesbit, too, for that matter. And maybe I should revisit the (out-of-print) books of Scott Corbett, which I remember from the public library in my neighbourhood, where they sat next to Ruth Chew’s endearing matter-of-fact magic books.

And for chapter books about kids in school, I prefer Andrew Clements of Frindle fame.

Hey, look! This year the Edward Eager books are being reissued! This pleases me for two reasons: it means the books are still selling, and it means they’ve redone the cover illustrations. (I didn’t like the Quentin Blake ones, because they make me think of Roald Dahl, whom I don’t like.)

T’ung Shu: The Ancient Chinese Almanac

T’ung Shu: The Ancient Chinese Almanac is not the almanac itself, but rather an explanation and sample of what is in the almanac, a yearly publication with hundreds of years of history in Chinese culture.

My copy of this explanatory book is a quality hardcover with printing in both red ink and black ink on some pages. See below for what stood out, and when and why I read it.

I’ve never bought a copy of the actual almanac, though I’m sure it’s available in Singapore. Here’s an online version: http://www.dragon-gate.com/tool/almanac/

Continue reading T’ung Shu: The Ancient Chinese Almanac

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Amazingly innovative, Cloud Atlas is a book that’s hard to describe and even harder to put down. I didn’t like it, but I absolutely think you should read it because it’s that interesting.

The (presumably rather Westernized) Buddhist themes of reincarnation and interconnectedness didn’t really bother me, though I prefer their opposites, transience and individuality. I think the movie scores better on individuality: there’s maybe as much emphasis on the line, “What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?” as there is on “Our lives are not our own; we are bound to others, past and present.” In both the book and the movie, the nature of truth is a major theme, and one I like.

In the book (but not the movie), two of the six protagonists were rather despicable, and the book’s view of humanity is bleak: the message seems to be that we keep repeating the same mistakes and don’t deserve a civilization, since we keep wrecking it in various ways, heroes notwithstanding.

For a kind of overview and more on what I thought including SPOILERS, keep reading, but only if you’ve read the book or don’t intend to.

Also see my post on the movie Cloud Atlas (2012).

Continue reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell