books, writing

Bukowski On Writing

I finished reading a book by Charles Bukowski which was supposed to be about his thoughts on writing. What it turned out to be was a collection of stories, letters, and book forwards over the years that are tangentially related to writing.

I enjoyed the book overall but I think that only a Bukowski fan would really appreciate it.

My biggest takeaway from the book is that if I want to be more like Bukowski then I should listen to classical music and drink more wine.

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9/11 Memorial
books

Oskar’s Heavy Boots

In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer tells the story of a young boy named Oskar who is on a quest to come to terms with the sudden death of his father in the 9/11 attacks. While rummaging through his father’s belongings a few days after the tragic events of that day, he finds a mysterious key inside a vase. Determined to find the lock that it belongs to, he travels around all of New York city in search of closure.  Foer captures the voice of a nine year old boy perfectly. We are immediately attached to him and his terrible loss and spend the rest of the book hoping that he succeeds in his journey.


EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE
By Jonathan Safran Foer
368 pp. Mariner Books $25

September 11th was not the only tragedy that was covered in this book. A generation earlier, Oskar’s grandfather survived the Bombing of Dresden. While he walked away with his life, he chose to live his life as a victim rather than a survivor. He leaves Oskar’s grandmother abruptly, loses the ability to speak, and spends many years writing letters to his son (Oskar’s father) which he never delivers before his death.

The book consists of intertwined segments. The main story is pushed along via Oskar’s narration. Pieces of the past are presented in the form of letters from his Grandparents. It explores a wide range of emotions including tragedy, loss, love and regret.

I regret that it takes a life to learn how to live, Oskar. Because if I were able to live my life again, I would do things differently.

Oskar slowly finds a way to cope with his fathers death. Throughout his journey he comes up with many provocative metaphors. The one that stood out the most to me was comparing life to a building on fire.

Everything that’s born has to die, which means our lives are like skyscrapers. The smoke rises at different speeds, but they’re all on fire, and we’re all trapped.

It’s difficult to read this book even a decade after the terrible events of that day. Those of us who were witnesses were changed forever in one way or another. An entire generation has now grown up viewing life from the lens of everything that happened before 9/11 and everything that has happened after.

We are quickly approaching a date where everyone under the age of 18 will have been born after September 11, 2001. I imagine they will grow up to view this day similar to how people in their 30’s and 40’s think about Pearl Harbor or the bombing of Hiroshima; a terrible event that happened long ago but has little emotional connection to every day reality. Historical fiction books are important in this regard. Unlike the non-fiction books that tell an objective story with facts, figures, and death tolls, fiction allows us to view the event from the perspective of a real human being. We feel something more than shock. We learn something more than a statistic or a timeline of events.

I thought if everyone could see what I saw, we would never have war anymore.

This book does not have a happy ending. We walk away feeling the same hopelessness and loss that Oskar does. Our boots become very heavy. The next 9/11, Hiroshima, Bombing of Dresden, Rape of Nanking, or < INSERT NAME OF TRAGEDY HERE >, is potentially days away. I would love to live in a world where books like this one were pure fiction, instead of based on a true story.

 

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President Barack Obama speaks during a meeting with civil society leaders at the Young African Leaders Initiative Regional Leadership Center in Nairobi. Photo credit: US Embassy Nairobi
books

Obama’s Journey to Discover His Roots

In 1995, after becoming the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, a young and relatively unknown politician named Barack Obama wrote a candid memoir tracing his quest to discover who he was.


DREAMS FROM MY FATHER
By Barack Obama
466 pp. Random House $17

Obama begins with a recount of his childhood growing up in Honolulu where he was estranged from his father at a very young age. His father was from Kenya and his mother was a white woman from the midwest.

It couldn’t have been easy growing up as a mixed race person in the 1960s and 70s. Race relations in the United States were at a breaking point and every bit of progress that was made with legislation seemed to not quite be enough to change the attitudes of the general population. His struggle with identity, belonging, and purpose continued throughout his childhood and into his later years.

He had a strong support structure thanks to his mother and grandparents. They accepted him, encouraged him, and ensured that he was given the tools that he needed to succeed. Unfortunately, their support was not quite enough to calm the gnawing feeling of not belonging.

Know where you belong, he advised. He made it sound simple, like calling directory assistance. “Information—what city, please?” “Uh … I’m not sure. I was hoping you could tell me. The name’s Obama. Where do I belong?”

Obama, Barack. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (pp. 114-115). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.

Obama had limited engagement with his father growing up. They mostly communicated via letters. His father’s advice to him was to known where he belongs. With this advice in hand, upon completing his undergraduate studies Obama began exploring activism and political organizing.

The next part of the book chronicles his work as a community organizer in Chicago. We learn about the struggles of the community and the long hours and hard fought battles that took place in order to make any sort of progress.

The last part of the book goes into detail into Obama’s journey to Kenya to meet his fathers side of the family. It was common in Kenya for men to have multiples wives which resulted in very large families. We are introduced to close and distant relatives through a series of vivid recollections of the conversations, stories, and experiences that took place.

Obama’s writing style and voice is superb. He tells an honest story and produces rich characters that we can relate to through the brief vignettes that we are shown. His descriptions of the people, places, and things that he encounters on his quest transport the reader from the beautiful islands of Hawaii, to the chilly slums of Chicago, all the way to the arid plains of Kenya. It is amazing to witness the level of detail that went in to developing the compelling dialog and meaningful stories that are scattered throughout the memoir.

In the epilogue, Obama laments the challenges of studying and practicing law.

The study of law can be disappointing at times, a matter of applying narrow rules and arcane procedure to an uncooperative reality;

Obama, Barack. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (p. 437). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.

He poses a question for us to think about.

How do we transform mere power into justice, mere sentiment into love?

Obama, Barack. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (p. 438). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.

Many leaders don’t start to write books until they are well into the prime of their careers. This peek into the early part of Obamas life written at a time before he became one of the most powerful people on Earth provides us with a unique perspective that helps us understand his character and values. Obama’s story has unique twists, but the general theme is a universal one and inspires all who are struggling to find where they belong in this world.

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books

Thoughts on “Getting Things Done”

I finally finished reading “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. This has been on my reading list for years so I am glad that I finally got a chance to scratch it off of that list. Overall, it was a good read and I learned how to approach an overwhelming number of tasks with Allen’s proven methodology. My biggest takeaways from the book were:

  1. Get things out of your head and somewhere where you will look at them later. Big or small, short or tall, write it down.
  2. Identify what success, or “done” actually looks like right away.
  3. Identify the next step instead of worrying about the scope of a large project.

I’ve been using Kanboard to manage my day to day work for both professional and personal projects. Before that, when I was using OS X I used a program called OmniFocus which does an amazing job at allowing you to capture items from any context. Using a simple shortcut (Super + Space) it let you get things out of your brain quickly.

No other tool that I know of does this, and its a real shame because the biggest barrier to feeling relaxed about the pile of things you have to do is being able to trust that a specific item is going to be looked at again from any context. When adding a task to an app feels like work (i.e you have to go to a webpage, open an app, etc) then you may not do it.

I attempted to reproduce the magic of OmniFocus with a simple desktop app that I wrote called TaskAdder. When mapped to a keyboard shortcut (Ctrl + Space for me) it lets you add a task to your Kanboard from any context. Using this app for the last few weeks while reading GTD has changed my life.

Overall, the book was great. My only gripe is that it was a bit verbose. Many chapters repeated the same ideas, and the same examples. In addition, although these methods could apply to any human being a lot of the examples and anecdotes that Allen offers come from big wig executives who have secretaries, offices, and enough money to afford his one on one consulting work. My eyes began to roll after the third time that I was reminded to talk to my secretary (which I have never had) about helping me with my workflow.

If you don’t like reading verbose books, I still think that looking into the GTD methodology is worth doing. The main website is full of great examples, diagrams, and resources.

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