Review: The Goldfinch

A young boy named Theo with a troubled family life survives a horrifying terrorist act in New York City that kills his beloved mother and changes the course of his entire life. So much happens in the lives of Theo, his family and friends over the course of nearly 800 pages that I won’t try to summarize the plot – besides, the twists and turns are best discovered in their own time, and whether or not you predict them, they are delightful.

At its heart, this is a novel about memory and loss, and about art, and the value of things. What could possibly be more important that the concept of value? Love, family, antique objects, singular works of art, the minutes of our lives – what is any of it worth, and how can we know?

Not all of my reactions are favorable, though. I quickly realized that the characters had a “stock” quality to them, no matter how many hundreds of descriptive words were employed to flesh them out. There is the pale, precocious, ill-fated nerd Andy and his rich, New York high society family; there is the beautiful, delicate-looking yet spunky love interest, Pippa; there is the swaggering ex-actor alcoholic father. The obsessive amount of detail in this book is at once satisfying and frustrating depending on how it’s enlisted, because no matter how clearly I feel I see these characters, I can’t escape the sense that I’ve met them before. Tartt also resorts to actual cliches a few times and they made me flinch on more than one occasion early on.

The London Review of Books sniffed that this is a “children’s book” for adults and I can’t say they are wrong about the actual writing level. It ain’t Henry James. But I read and enjoy a lot of books that are also not Henry James. Thus: While totally understanding why someone might not like this modern fairy tale, I thoroughly, completely and shamelessly enjoyed it.

Book review: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
4/5 stars

Review: Spark

An incredibly important, exhaustively researched book that will fascinate anyone who is even remotely interested in how our brains work. Now quite famous and highly regarded, psychiatrist John Ratey presents study after study in service to his thesis: that vigorous physical exercise is not only good for our bodies, it also has the power to improve mood, treat mental illnesses like anxiety and depression, prevent memory loss, improve conditions like ADD, and generally “remodel” our brains for all around better performance. The first book of its kind (that I know of, anyhow), it leaves no assertion hanging, but presents reams of compelling evidence to support every claim. The insights in this book have changed many lives, including mine. It should be taught in every middle school physical education or biology class.

Book review: Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John J. Ratey, Eric Hagerman
5/5 stars

Review: Brand Seduction

An entertaining, well researched and highly readable spin through how our brains work, how we process messages and how we project our thoughts and aspirations into brands. To create a brand people will identify with and truly love, companies must strive for utter consistency of message and, these days, marketers must also understand some neuroscience. Consider this a vital crash course. As a marketing and branding pro I’ve read stacks of books on the subject; this one is worth keeping around.

Book review: Brand Seduction: How Neuroscience Can Help Marketers Build Memorable Brands, by Daryl Weber
4/5 stars

Review: Lean Out

Lean Out is a diverse collection of 19 essays of uneven quality but consistent passion. Each piece of writing shares a personal story, experience or perspective of a woman or transperson either in the trenches of Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial dream machine, or looking back on it after leaving. Whatever benefits Sheryl Sandberg extolls in “Lean In” (the clear reference point to which this collection is a response) these essays point out that outsiders are expected to conform in order to succeed…and “outsiders” are anyone who is not a white cis male. This isn’t so much a whiny collection of hand-wringing identity politics as a thoughtful report of real experiences – the reader is invited to draw a lot of their own conclusions.

My star rating isn’t for the quality of writing (which is sort of all over the place) but for the topic and diversity of perspectives and ideas. I read it because I currently live, work and hire for a startup in SF, and I want to be thoughtful about it. Worthwhile.

Favorite essays: “Fictive Ethnicity and Nerds” by K. Cross; “The Pipeline Isn’t the Problem” by the editor.

Book review: Lean Out: The Struggle for Gender Equality in Tech and Start-Up Culture, edited by Elissa Shevinsky
4/5 stars

Review: Island beneath the sea

A truly extraordinary novel of wide, sweeping historical vision, hope and beauty among the darkest of times and places.

I was gripped for its hundreds of detailed pages and learned a great deal I didn’t know before about a breathtaking array of topics, including: the French and Spanish in Haiti and Cuba, the reverberations of the French Revolution in the colonies, the slave trade in the colonies vs in Louisiana, sugar cane plantation life, New Orleans culture and society around the 1800s and its complex system of caste based on skin color.

The cast of characters includes slaves of all kinds, plantation owners and overseers both cruel and kind, wealthy and conniving society ladies, revolutionary warriors both black and white, pragmatic pirates, early abolitionists, dashing bon vivants and beautiful courtesans. The mystery of both voodoo and the Christian faith infuse the narrative with occasional dashes of magic. Dance through this fascinating history alongside Tété, and feel inspired as she finds endless courage and hope within herself in places where humanity and love seem impossible…but aren’t.

Book review: Island beneath the sea, by Isabelle Allende
5/5 stars

Review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

This slim volume is partly a guide to training for long distance running, part memoir of a writer’s life and career, part zen philosophy of life and death. I’ve heard it repeatedly described as “intimate” and “thoughtful” and it is both of these things, yet also it is more.

For someone who hates to run, I sure have read a lot about long distance running lately. I read Scott Jurek’s ultramarathon running memoir/vegan cookbook, I’ve read more articles about the sport than I can count – partially because I’m trying to understand my husband (who loves running) but partially because I’m trying to understand other things, about life, discipline and repetition as the path to greatness in any of life’s pursuits, athletic or not.

While I am not a fan of running, I am a fan of stories that tell of human will and triumph, and I am a great fan of Murakami, so I was drawn to this book. It seemed inevitable that I should read it and the changing of the year always brings with it for me a more focused than usual contemplation of discipline, of goals and will.

Murakami draws some fairly obvious parallels here between the lonely, plodding labors of long-distance running and regular novel-writing. (This book makes a good companion to Stephen King’s “On Writing” which I also recently read and enjoyed.) The marathons and triathlons for which Murakami trains and in which he competes provide some narrative flow and shape. But I would tell you not to read this book for the narrative, and not even for the autobiographical insight into Murakami (how he became a writer, how he and his wife sold their successful bar and changed their lives with calm-eyed purpose).

Read this book for the unexpected beauty of its sentences, for the small bits of descriptive genius that Murakami creates so often. The small wry jokes, the delightful insistence on personifying objects. Though some reviewers have complained about his stubborn vagueness, it’s clear to me that when he says something is “pretty good” or that he is “kind of naive” or that his leg felt “really painful” or some similarly terse and boring statement, it’s deliberate. And he is unrelentingly Japanese in his subtle deliberateness. If he unleashed all the words in his vocabulary at all times, we wouldn’t notice the most wonderful bits, where every word is so easily, perfectly placed, where every small choice matters.

These are few of my favorite moments:

From chapter 6: “I had plenty of desire to run, but my legs had their own opinion about this.”

“I’m a piece of machinery. I don’t need to feel a thing. Just forge on ahead.”

“[One] of the privileges given to those who’ve avoided dying young is the blessed right to grow old. The honor of physical decline is waiting.”

From chapter 7: “Has the dark shadow really disappeared? Or is it inside me, concealed, waiting for its chance to reappear?”

From chapter 9: “The sad spreadsheet of my life that reveals how much my debts far outweighs my assets.”

As I review these scraps I find they do not quite retain their magic or meaning all alone, excerpted here, the spell broken. I also find I can’t quite describe what makes Murakami’s particular way of speaking and writing so special to me. If you do not like Murakami, perhaps this book is not for you. I do not like running, but this book delighted and touched me to the core.

Book review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami
5/5 stars

Review: Modern Romance

Aziz Ansari’s humorous stroll through the jungle of modern (highly digital) dating is a treat to read. With its breezy, often hysterical, style and well-researched tidbits about human behavior and the neuroscience behind why we act and react the way we do during mating activities, its bestseller status is no surprise to me.

This is not a “comedy” book per se; it’s a very serious book about a silly topic, as written by a funny person. Ansari seems to have really found his voice here – it’s the voice of a slightly goofy smart guy observing, not quite believing the silly things he sees, and delving deeper into the research to show us that things really are this silly in most modern internet-enabled dating.

To write this book, Ansari teamed up with NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg, and designed experiments, surveys, even dedicated Reddit forums to collect information and (often sad and hilarious) personal stories from people all over the world. They do an excellent job of illustrating the modern “problem” of becoming paralyzed and exhausted by having so many choices, the ability to endlessly research them all, and the conviction that if we CAN have “the best” then we SHOULD have it. Of course, when we apply this set of ideas to dating, we’re setting ourselves up for fatigue, misery and probably, failure. This is demonstrated in a number of ways, data and anecdotes.

A highlight for me was the overview of the neurochemistry behind “companionate” vs “passionate” love (a subject I would expect to see explored more thoroughly in more relationship books actually) and the comments from Jonathan Haidt, an NYU psychologist specializing in morality and emotions. Some of the soundest relationship- and life-advice came from this section. I was also happy to see that Dan Savage was consulted and quoted with regard to exploring non-monogamy as a serious option.

With any book about modern dating, I expect to be appalled at least some of the time by sexism, but on the whole I think Ansari does a good job of representing the bullshit that women face and remaining neutral, not falling into many potential sexist or slut-shaming traps. Regarding different reasons for women vs men to date and get married, I enjoyed the discussion of how the internet has freed young people (especially women) in repressive cultures to interact more freely in secret than their parents might allow. It’s interesting to think about how technology that seems to make life harder for more privileged women (i.e. giving dudes more power of choice, lowering women’s perceived “market value” – a horrible idea and worth a whole different discussion) also makes life easier for women in more restrictive cultures (giving them more freedom to participate in the world).

I have some quibbles with the book. At times it is repetitive and some of the jokes are mighty dumb. Another annoying thing that comes to mind is the glossing over of the Tinder origin story and the sexist erasure of co-founder Whitney Wolfe. They did so much research, you’d think they would have Googled a bit about Tinder and given credit where it was due, instead of participating in erasing Wolfe from history and giving her accomplishments to her male co-founders. (Catch up here if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) Even more tragic, the way Wolfe was ousted from Tinder would have made some great dating horror story material, very relevant to this book!

I think this must have been an honest oversight – I hope so – Ansari has always struck me as more of a feminist, interested in fairness, in truth. Perhaps this is the type of thing that could be corrected in the next edition – I know I’d be happy to read another chapter in a few years, covering whatever new innovations in online dating come up in the meantime.

Book review: Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari, Eric Klinenberg
4/5 stars

On useful surveys

You know you need to get feedback from your users – you probably already do it. Lately I’ve spent a ton of time carefully adjusting, rewriting and generally fiddling with customer communications, trying to pin down the perfect number of words and the right timing to say something and get a response without annoying people or turning them off. Something just happened that so perfectly illustrates a few key principles to follow that I had to write it down.

Here’s what happened:

I got a haircut yesterday at my favorite salon. The owner greeted me. My usual stylist was friendly and in a good mood. I loved the haircut when I walked out. I had a generally great experience – I even mentioned this to my partner when I got home, what a nice experience I had. (Every business owner’s dream, an actual unpaid spontaneous positive brand placement.)

Today, I got an email from the salon, asking for my feedback. Sure, I thought. I clicked the button (step 1), gave the visit a 5-star rating (2), wrote a one sentence positive note (3), and said yes, I would be likely to recommend the salon (4). That was easy and painless, but it still took about 3 minutes of my time and a high level of goodwill on my part as a customer to complete these 4 steps. I clicked the button to send my response, expecting to be done.

And behold – I was taken to a second page – with 10 verbose multiple choice questions.

Oh my god, I thought as I looked at this wall of text, never mind, I don’t have time for that. Shaking my head, I closed the survey.

If you write surveys that are too long, this is exactly what your customers will do.

So what? Here are some things to remember when surveying customers.

Even the most positive customer will only allow you to impose on them for a moment. You might be their favorite brand, but remember…you’re still just a brand. You’re not their friend. Don’t get confused. You work for them. Not the other way around.

What does that mean? It means that you must respect their time. Ask your three most important questions. Then stop. If they like you, they’ll be back. Ask them another question next time. Or ask those questions a different way. Or maybe, don’t ask them anything for a while, then ask again next month or next quarter.

People like to be nice, they like to help out, and they don’t like to be rude. When someone – even your hair salon, or your podcast app, or your insert-favorite-SaaS-product-here – asks a quick question that costs them almost nothing to answer, they’re  inclined to just answer it. After all, answering “Yes” or “No” or “:)” is just about the same amount of effort as clicking the “X” to dismiss the email or dialog box. The further you get from that amount of effort – the more work you make them do – the less they’ll feel like helping you.

On the flip side, people feel good when they help each other.

Ask them a simple question that they are capable of answering – make it quick and easy – maybe even make it fun by using conversational language and a cute button to press – and they’ll actually have a moment of positive emotion. Maybe it’ll make them more likely to answer your next question, when you ask it in a week or a month. And that’s what you want.

Here are some resources that I found useful as I thought about surveys.

These articles are really basic, but I found them all to be good starting points for inquiry.