Saturday, March 30, 2013

Bend, Not Break by Ping Fu

Bend, Not Break
by Ping Fu
5 stars - highly recommend

Let's get some things out of the way right up front.

Following the publication of this book, there was no small amount of controversy surrounding suspicion of the accuracy of all the stories Ping Fu tells of her childhood through young adulthood and, finally, entry into the US (curiously, no controversy around what happened to her once she arrived in America). Be that as it may, one can make allowances for faded or distorted childhood memories, discount the extremity of some of the scenes described and still get a lot out of reading the book.

Bend, Not Break is an autobiography which follows Ping Fu's life, starting with growing up in China during the cultural revolution and ending with her success at founding Geomagic, Inc. 

What was important for me was the overall philosophy of the story (summarized by the title). The philosophy that the strong will bend during hardship, but not break, and that treating others with kindness and love brings success and peace, even in the business world.

In particular, Ms. Fu characterizes the journey of life, not as the relentless pursuit of an elusive summit of happiness, but a journey through a mountain range where there will be peaks and valleys. 

"Your ability to thrive depends, in the end, on your attitude to your life circumstances. When you are like the three friends of winter, you take everything in stride with grace, putting forth energy when it is needed, yet always staying calm inwards."

Nobody disputes that Ms. Fu was taken from her family as a child and moved into a dorm to live with and care for her younger sister. There she is housed among others who are enemies of the Cultural Revolution. That circumstance alone, even without the abuse she suffers, is certainly enough to make any reader cringe. How, one wonders, can anybody survive such a childhood and prosper? Indeed. This is especially thought provoking given how the U.S. seems to have swung the pendulum the other way to forgive any adult misbehavior if somebody's childhood was at all rocky and to teach people that they needn't suffer and overcome, but rather to wallow in self-pity. 

The way overcoming the hardships of life is described (as opposed to in a typical American "triumph over life circumstances" book is written) resonated with me. It isn't about pointing a finger at your past and saying "Look at what life handed me and how far I have come! I am amazing!" At least it shouldn't be. How much better to say "This is what my life is now, the past is the past, and I will enjoy the good times and learn from the bad."

I'd love to see this book as part of the MBA curriculum, warts and all. Ping Fu's approach to the business world is to treat everybody as a human being, to admit mistakes, seek help and guidance. 

When she has to let go employees due to financial issues in her company, one of them hits her with a lawsuit. Instead of starting a battle of lawyers, she contacts the employee, meets with him privately, and seeks to understand what led to the lawsuit and how she can help. Her operating theory for her company is not to be powerful and make money, it is to bring an important product to market. 

How I wish corporate executives could talk about doing the right thing instead of bringing all their tired sports analogies into their speeches and puffing up about market share. Blech. I don't attend the quarterly meetings for employees where I work. I want to spit when I hear about how we're going to "pull together as a team" and "score a touchdown" and "WIN WIN WIN!" I don't want to hear about gaining market share or how much revenue is rolling in. I'd much rather hear how our product is helping people. About how it is more important to do the job right than to meet some deadline. How if anybody sees that there is a dangerous flaw, that the production line will be stopped and all forces brought to bear on fixing the flaw. 

"As I dealt with various employee issues during those dark hours, I kept reminding myself: it's all about love. Blaming others, being fearful and angry, acting vengefully, building resentment, destroying trust - these negative responses to trying situations suck us into a downward spiral and sap our energy, like water spinning down a drain." 

Even though the exact circumstances and timing of Ping Fu's immigration to the U.S. has been questioned, there is no question that she came here with $80 in her pocket, no English language skills, and only the name of a fellow Chinese immigrant at the University of New Mexico. 

How is it that such a person can rise to running her own company when so many U.S. citizens seem unable to pull themselves out of poverty? I look around at the large immigrant community in our town. Yes, there are many here illegally, but those that are here with proper paperwork often seem to build something from nothing. I suspect it is because they are willing to work hard and suffer in order to move forward. That they have little or no expectations that somebody else will bail them out. I also believe that strong family and community ties are the cornerstone to success. 

I live in a very affluent part of town, in an affluent state. One of the reasons I love where I live is that despite the large houses and properties, we are a neighborhood. We bring each other baked goods and food from our gardens. We watch out for neighbors, tell each other when we won't be home. We know when one of ours is ill or has had a major life event. So many of the people I work with have not even shared a word with the neighbors (and they have often built resentments towards these people whom they don't know).

But I digress. 

Bottom line is, read the book. The writing is, for the most part, good. The story is compelling. The philosophy important.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Mystery Triple Header

A trio of serviceable mysteries. Perfect for vacation reading.

Cause for Concern
by Margaret Yorke
3 stars

Did I already read this? I don't think so. I get the distinct impression that I watched it as a movie. And yet I don't find any movie attributions on the Internet. Wonder if somebody stole the story? It sure was familiar.

Martin Trent is an icky guy. He's a drunk and user of people. He lives with his mother whom he beats on a regular basis. The neighbors are antsy, but decide to keep their own counsel.

Many characters are introduced in the first half of the book, with their lives intersecting in various ways. Of course Adam Wilson, arriving from out of town to do "research" must somehow play a role in the ultimate reveal, but what could it be? Yeah, I kind of figured it out, but it was cool the way the characters came and went, saw things, didn't see things, like a puzzle fitting together.

Bonus points for a real edge of your seat high speed chase scene. It is no small feat to be able to write about a car chase in a way that has the reader breathless.

Ms. Yorke is apparently quite prolific, so I'll revisit her in the future.

Death at Rainy Mountain
by Mardi Oakley Medawar
3 stars

Mardi Oakley Medawar was recommended to me by a follower. Thank you.

It's summer, 1866, and the separate bands of the Kiowa Nation gather at the sacred Rainy Mountain to elect a successor to Little Bluff, the recently deceased principal chief. The election process comes to a halt when the nephew of one candidate is accused of killing the nephew of another. Uh oh.

Tay-bodal, a healer, is the main character and he is recruited to find the truth about the murder. I loved Tay-bodal. He is a total nerd. As such, he isn't all that popular with his fellow tribesmen and women. Doesn't get invited to the cool parties and is considered to be a goof. However, the medicine he practices is quite effective as he is always keen to learn new techniques and clamp down on superstition, so when somebody is ill, he's there man.

Here's how he describes himself:

"Not to make a meal of it, I was a loner. Generally considered a man of no consequence. Even my name, Tay-bodal, is less than awe-inspiring. Literally translated my name means, Meat Carrier (the hind-end portion of the buffalo , no less)."

Now, that quote shows another reason I liked this book. Sure, it is about Native Americans during the 19th century, but the author did not paint them as simple beings. The writing, the thoughts, the actions, are all human being appropriate. Sheesh. Just because the Native American culture was foreign to white folks doesn't mean they were morons. Here's another quote:

"But Kicking Bird was about as comforting, about as malleable, as dried tree sap..."

I got a nice lesson in cultures clashing too. The action moves to a military encampment and the soldiers are just as baffled and foolish regarding Native American ways as the reverse.

One caveat. If I read another one of Ms. Medwar's books, I'll create a character scorecard. I confess to getting quite confused by the different names and relationships so when the mystery was revealed (in a speech by Tay-bodal that was quite reminiscent of Agatha Christie) I had a hard time figuring out who did what to whom. Lesson learned.

by R.D. Zimmerman
3 stars

Todd Mills, investigative reporter for local news station WLAK, is about to get tangled up in more than he bargained for. His life is already complicated. He's having an affair with a homicide detective who just told him they should "take a break to see other people." Don't you hate that?

But then Todd is called to the scene of a nasty murder of a 17 year old boy. A boy with whom Todd was personally acquainted. And finally, mega movie star, Tim Chase, is visiting town to make a film and has, for reasons which are unclear, decided to give Todd an exclusive interview.

Ready? Here's the kicker. How about we toss in homosexuality, homophobia, and all the complications that brings with it. Because Todd and his boyfriend, Steve Rawlins just so happen to have met with the victim when they visited a local youth shelter for gay and lesbian teenagers. And what of Tim Chase? Well, it seems that the media is just as interested in his sexual orientation as they are with his acting abilities. 

Even though the book is over ten years old, not much progress has been made in acceptance of homosexuality and the struggles of the individuals involved are real and poignant. It certainly affirmed my notion that being a celebrity, well, it kind of sucks. Tim Chase has to sneak around to avoid stalkers with cameras and has to be on guard lest whatever rumors surface undermine his career.

The victim found himself in Minneapolis after being thrown out of his house when his parents discovered he was gay. Ish. How could a parent do that?

Great characters, good writing. I saw the ending coming, but that's OK. It's the journey that matters, right?

As a side note, I found this book quite by chance. I went to the library and said "I will check out the very last book in the mystery section without even looking at it and see what I get." I got lucky and will likely read more by this author.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Scent of the Missing by Susannah Charleson

Scent of the Missing
by Susannah Charleson
5 stars - not just for dog lovers

At last! A dog book written by somebody who can write! Thank goodness.

Scent of the Living is Susannah Charleson's story of her work with Search and Rescue. It follows her progress from trainee who tags along behind dog teams taking notes, to getting her own SAR dog, Puzzle, and raising her to locate missing people.

Dog lovers will appreciate the tales of raising a rambunctious and independent Golden Retriever. Certainly a different dog from the rescue Pomeranians in residence prior to the arrival of SAR puppy, Puzzle. 

Anybody who has raised a puppy will easily relate to the descriptions of trying to tame the beast as in this passage regarding their early experiences in walking nicely on leash:

"In a few months, I get a casual, acceptable trot ahead from her, punctuated by only a few spasms of pull. The lead is frequently slack. I feel less like I'm walking a chain saw. But "heel" Puzzle seems to find insulting. She veers away on her lead like a reluctant teenager in the company of a parent. We are irrevocably bound, but terribly uncool. She seems to be sure I'm unnecessary. She prefers to think I'm invisible too."

How ignorant I was regarding the training that goes into search and rescue (and, by the way, most of the teams doing it are volunteers, often working all night and then going to their "real" jobs in the morning). Handlers need to learn to rappel off buildings (eventually with their dogs), trudge through nasty environments, both indoors and out, and often go about their business under the glare of less than friendly people. 

Ms. Charleson does a good job of describing the work without dwelling on the details of the finds. While she goes out on searches for lost seniors, lost children, sweeps through houses destroyed by fire, communities devastated by natural disaster, she keeps her focus on the dogs and handlers. 

Not only do the handlers have to train to search, they spend a lot of time acting as victims for the dogs to find. Squished between sodden mattresses, pinched in under piles of rubble, hoping for a quick find to relieve the claustrophobia and discomfort of playing the role. 

These people and their dogs know the meaning of giving. They are dedicated and relentless. I am in awe.

Eventually it is time for Puzzle to take the series of tests which will qualify her to be an official SAR dog. Through brush and bramble, over water, in buildings and out, and inside a fire scene:

"At the end of a long corridor smudged dark with recent smoke, Puzzle stands with her nose to a door, her tail waving faintly, Six rooms, six closed doors, and behind one of those, a single volunteer victim buried in rubble. We are in the fire department burn building, and today Puzzle is telling me which closed door to open and which others to ignore. She was given the "Find!" command yards from the building, and in she ran, smiling, her tongue out sideways. I am steps behind her, running from bright into immediate gloom. The air here is thick with soot and the dust of spent hay, and in the flashlight's beam, I can see the swirls of Puzzle's slipstream wash up against the wall like an airplane's wingtip vortices. If she were to disappear down some dark passage, for a time at least I could track her path through dusty air. I sneeze, then sneeze again."


Monday, March 11, 2013

The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler

The Hypnotist
by Lars Kepler
5 stars - fasten your seat belts

Wowee! This was stay up too late to read "just a few more pages" or "no thanks, I'd rather read than watch a movie tonight" kind of good. What a ride!

I will say right up front, not for the squeamish. The murders and other acts of terror are awful and there are enough sociopaths to make you afraid to give out your address to anybody.

If you can manage that, then get ready for a great book. 

To discuss too much of the plot would be impossible. Why? Because this book has too many surprising twists for me to want to reveal more than the most cursory information. While some books full of changes in direction and false leads seem contrived, this one had more of a "oh damn, now what?" feel to it. 

Let's go with the dust jacket:

In the frigid clime of Tumba, Sweden, a gruesome triple homicide attracts the interest of Detective Inspector Joona Linna, who demands to investigate the murders. The killer is still at large, and there's only one surviving witness - the boy whose family was killed before his eyes. Whoever committed the crimes wanted this boy to die: he's suffered more than one hundred knife wounds and lapsed into a state of shock

Uh oh. Detective Linna calls on Dr. Erik Maria Bark to hypnotize the boy and try to help solve the case. Dr. Bark had, some time ago, specialized in hypnosis as therapy for severely traumatized individuals, but was in retirement from that field and reluctant to help out. However,  he cannot resist the case. He hypnotizes the boy, draws out some surprising information, and the story is underway.

Just when you think you know what this book is about, it turns out to be about something else completely and then back again and forward and sideways and.... oh my! Chillingly plausible with very human characters whose personal struggles are dealt with in enough depth for the reader to form alliances. 

Translated from the Swedish by Ann Long. Kudos to Ms. Long for being able to effectively maintain the author's writing style in the translation. 

It's dark, it's ugly, and it is a great thriller.

The author is actually two people who jointly write under the pen name of Lars Kepler. I don't know quite how that is managed. I never had the sense of reading two different authors. 

I have a habit of cruising the new release section of the library, finding something interesting, and then going to the stacks to get earlier works by the same authors. That's how I stumbled over this particular book. The good news is that it means there is another volume of theirs still to look forward to. However, I need to cleanse my pallet with a couple of happy making books from my ever present stack before I am ready to subject myself to the intensity of their newer story.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Two Short Reviews - hey! I have stuff to do, OK?

Death in Show
by Judi McCoy
3 stars - for dog lovers only

I started this book when my head was a little foggy from some medication and thought "hey, this isn't bad." But once my head cleared, not so good.

The main character in Death in Show is Ellie, a NYC dog walker and the death takes place at Westminster. 

So here's the scoop. I finished this book not because the characters were terribly interesting (they weren't) and not because they mystery was compelling (I had everything sewn up in my head from the start). I read it because Ms. McCoy is obviously a dog lover of gigantic proportions. The book oozes with dog loving. In fact there is hardly a page that goes by where a dog isn't either doing something or being discussed.

That made me happy. It made me like the book just for being. Heck, I might even try another one of her mysteries.

The Store
by T.S. Stribling
1933 Pulitzer Prize
1 star - not even

Had this been the edition my library produced I might have given the book more of a chance. Instead, they gave me a gigantic paperback with stiff bindings that made it clumsy to hold. I know, how small of me.

Maybe I just wasn't in the mood, but after 50 pages or so, I read some online reviews, got the gist of the plot, and opted out. Politics. Ugh. Yeah, from the synopsis on Wikipedia, it looks like some pretty juicy stuff happens, but I wasn't having it.