My Review: Go Ask Alice by Beatrice Sparks

Even worse than its reputation, Go Ask Alice is probably the worst book I've ever read - maybe the worst book ever published - literally the worst book to ever be considered a classic. It's like The Basketball Diaries for Her, but nothing like it, because The Basketball Diaries is not poorly-written propaganda drivel.

Rating: 1/5 stars

Control: Mantras

Compiled by Jen Serdetchnaia

It’s been 7 hours and 15 days. Understand that nothing is within your control. Stillness is an illusion.

Do you know the difference between engagement and tension? Pain is good because it’s a reminder of our limitations. Let stress serve as a reminder to relax.

Why look toward where you don’t want to be? Why focus on what you don’t want? Let comfort be your guide. Less time in position, more time in transition. Less about the movement, more about the breath. Don’t reach for what’s not yours. Don’t lunge for what’s not yours. Don’t force yourself into a position that you’re not ready for. If you can linger in the shape then you own it.

Only do what you can do and always do what you can do. The doing is the success. It goes by fast as long as you don’t resist. The end points are easy, it’s what’s in the middle that’s difficult. Just flow. Sometimes we miss what we truly need.

Whatever you’re feeling, feel less. Whatever you’re trying for, pull back. Soften your strengths. Let go of it if it doesn’t serve. Effortless effort. Balance working hard and letting go. It’s harder than it looks.

The quickest path is to be where you are now. If there is no desire, then you have everything. Every option is perfect. What you did and what you didn’t do and who you aren’t that you wish you were, let it all go. We are human beings not human doings. Believe the hype.

Discovery is seeing what everybody else has seen and thinking what nobody else has thought.

My Review: Thanks, Obama by David Litt

The White House is a place where risks and rewards are “perilously” skewed, says Litt. Then he treats us to a story where sentence structure gone wrong pissess off a sovereign nation and makes headlines—proving his point.

A speechwriter’s memoir from a guy whose first job out of college was at the White House, Thanks, Obama, is Littered (pun intended) with hilarious metaphors and self-aware prose. As one would expect, Litt’s a fantastic writer. He says his job is to make complexity simple, and in Thanks, Obama, he shows off his prowess in a hilarious and quick read. This memoir is about coming of age on the job and the acknowledgment that the world’s most powerful people are human and how scary is that.

You have to read for yourself, but a few of the LOL/aww lines:

“It was as if Catholics and Protestants had split, and she’d responded by turning to Satan.”

“The question of whether I belonged seemed less important than the fact that I was here.”

“Imagine if a bank branch mated with a country club and raised a perfect child. That’s the Republican National Committee.”

“As far as I can tell, the DNC headquarters was designed by someone who had never seen a building before.”

“The glassy look in their eyes suggested a decidedly informal approach to human life.”

“Washingtonians are united by the season-long schvitz they take each year.”

“Change comes from people who set a worthy goal, put themselves in a position to achieve it, and keep working long after the warm and fuzzy feelings disappear.”

My Review: Walk through Walls by Marina Abramović

Probably the best memoir I've read in recent years. 

When I picked up Walk through Walls on a random recommendation at The Met Breuer's gift shop, I knew Abramović only vaguely as the performance artist who was reportedly reunited with a former lover during a MoMA event that involved her staring into visitors' eyes for days on days on days.

Abramović's story is an ode to the grit and perseverance (hence the title) that's needed to build success over the many, many years it takes to get there. Of course Abramović chose a career that's grittier than most of ours - it requires her to regularly go without food or movement, and to physically harm herself, all in the name of (performance) art - but the requirements for success are surprisingly similar. Yet don't be fooled - not all unyielding talented young artists were positioned to encounter the same luck as Abramović; after all, she was born into the culturally elite Red Bourgeois ruling class of Yugoslavia to gritty survivors/war heroes (Abramović fashioned her father as somewhat of Tito's left-hand man!) that loved and encouraged art. As a former Eastern Bloc-er myself, I have an acute appreciation for all this.

This memoir is as much about stark loss, bleak heartbreak and bad patterns, as it is about casual references to Björk and Susan Sontag.

More important than the chronology of her becoming, the Abramović memoir is about art. Bad art is aesthetic. Good art is art in context. Good art is transformative. Good art is immaterial. I wonder what Abramović thinks of Kendrick's rapidly iconic Humble - I'm so sick and tired of the Photoshop/Show me something natural. 

We're all getting on the same page here.

My Review: White Oleander by Janet Finch

I love words for words' sake and rarely dislike a book so strongly, but this one really got me in all the wrong ways. White Oleander is repetitive and long-winded, about 300 pages too long, sloppily-edited, gratuitous, and even exploitative. I don't require believability from fiction, but White Oleander was trite and clichéd for little higher metaphoric purpose. Much more would have been accomplished with much less.

My Review: How will you measure your life? by Clayton M. Christensen

I probably loved this book because I’m in almost complete agreement with its main arguments.

Christensen is a distinguished theorist of business, and here he applies business theory to personal life. I took almost as much away about business strategy as I did about life strategy. 

Christensen on theory

Main idea: A solid theory has no exceptions.

“Solving the challenges in your life requires a deep understanding of what causes what to happen.”

Christensen on building a career

Main idea: Be open and exploratory in your career until you find something that really fits with your skills and priorities–and then be focused and deliberate.

“Once you understand the concept of emergent and deliberate strategy, you’ll know that if you’ve yet to find something that really works in your career, expecting to have a clear vision of where your life will take you is just wasting time. Even worse, it may actually close your mind to unexpected opportunities. While you are still figuring out your career, you should keep the aperture of your life wide open. Depending on your particular circumstances, you should be prepared to experiment with different opportunities, ready to pivot, and continue to adjust your strategy until you find what is it that both satisfies the hygiene factors and gives you all the motivators. Only then does a deliberate strategy make sense. When you get it right, you’ll know.”

“I wouldn’t ever make the decision based upon how much it paid or the prestige…. Instead, it was always: is it going to give me the experiences I need to wrestle with?”

“People often think that the best way to predict the future is by collecting as much data as possible before making a decision. But this is like driving a car looking only at the rearview mirror–because data is only available about the past.”

Christensen on priorities

Main idea: How you actually spend your time, money and energy creates who you are–not your aspiration or goal-setting.

“If the decisions you make about where you invest your blood, sweat, and tears are not consistent with the person you aspire to be,  you’ll never become that person.”

Christensen on purpose

Main idea: Companies that exist solely to serve each individual’s goals are forgotten quickly. Companies with a purpose are the ones that leave a mark.

“Likeness, commitment and metrics comprise a company’s purpose. Companies that aspire to positive impact must never leave their purpose to chance.” Likeness is defining what the company wants to be, commitment is committing to it, and metrics is measuring it effectively.

Christensen on relationships

Main idea: Be with someone who you want to make happy and figure out how to make them happy (rather than the inverse). Sacrifice deepens commitment.

“We go into them thinking about what we want, rather than what is important to the other person. Changing your perspective is a powerful way to deepen your relationships.”

“The path to happiness in a relationship is not just about finding someone who you think is going to make you happy. Rather, the reverse is equally true: the path to happiness is about finding someone who you want to make happy, someone whose happiness is worth devoting yourself to.”

“Given that sacrifice deepens our commitment, it’s important to ensure that what we sacrifice for is worthy of that commitment.”

Christensen on capabilities

Main idea: Your capabilities are your resources, processes and priorities. Never outsource the ones that are important for your future.

“Resources are what he uses to do it, processes are how he does it, and priorities are why he does it.”

Christensen on culture

Main idea: A culture is the sum of processes that are repeated time and time again, consciously or unconsciously.

Christensen on consequences

Main idea: “If you need a machine and don’t buy it, then you will ultimately find that you have paid for it and don’t have it.”

“Decide what you stand for. And then stand for it all the time.”

My Review: Extreme You by Sarah Robb O'Hagan

O’Hagan’s recipe for career success manages to be arrestingly original in the overcrowded space of career self-help. 

The recipe: learn where you shine best, get your best at it, and find a specialized audience that needs it and can afford it.

Her method for achieving the recipe is to take initiative respectfully: first listen to understand your colleagues and the organization, then work to gain your colleagues’ respect on their terms, and then take initiative in a way that is in line with moving forward the organization. 

My main criticism of the book is that O’Hagan fails to acknowledge that many factors are in play within our careers, and not everything is within our control—and often there is more that is not. But I guess there is no point in dwelling on that! :) Also I could have done without the cheesy terminology; please, no more Extreme Self and Extreme Career and Get Out of Line.

My Review: The Best Interface is No Interface by Golden Krishna

Krishna is urging us to fall in love with something more alluring than a weather app and I'm into that. He believes the attitude of "there is an app for that" has ruined design. He asks that we embrace the actual situation, not just what works on a screen. Let's stop designing interfaces instead of solving user problems. Let's leverage computers instead of catering to them. The best design should reduce work - not create micro-addiction. 

My Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Captivating historical fiction about identity, heritage, ancestry, family, sisterhood, growing up, immigration, politics, indifference and cruelty.

The ideas that stuck with me:

  • Our priorities change as we mature in ways we couldn’t have envisioned.

  • We reap the investments (or lack thereof) of our ancestors, and the sacrifices we make today likely won’t pay off while we’re alive.

  • What we’re worried about most will never happen, but something else will that we never even imagined worrying about.

  • Most things are outside of our control.  

Shanghai Girls follows two sisters who flee Shanghai during World War II in arranged marriages and emigrate to Los Angeles, and their subsequent struggles as they in equal parts assimilate as Americans and maintain their Chinese identities in the midst of Mao Zedong-era Communist fear. Although the story is set over two decades between 1937 and 1957, the lessons of the book could not have resonated with me more as we head into an uncertain 2017.

The passage that summarizes Lisa See’s thesis:

“So often we’re told that women’s stories are unimportant. After all, what does it matter what happens in the main room, in the kitchen, or in the bedroom? Who cares about the relationships between mother, daughter, and sister? A baby’s illness, the sorrows and pains of childbirth, keeping the family together during war, poverty, or even in the best of days are considered small and insignificant compared with the stories of men, who fight against nature to grow their crops, who wage battles to secure their homelands, who struggle to look inward in search of the perfect man. We’re told that men are strong and brave, but I think women know how to endure, accept defeat, and bear physical and mental agony much better than men. The men in my lifemy father, Z.G., my husband, my father-in-law, my brother-in-law, and my sonfaced, to one degree or another, those great male battles, but their heartsso fragilewilted, buckled, crippled, corrupted, broke, or shattered when confronted with the losses women face every day. As men, they have to put a brave face on tragedy and obstacles, but they are as easily bruised as flower petals.”

My Review: Hooked by Nir Eyal

This book has been much-summarized and over-quoted. Many nuggets that inspire thought. Even more buzz words. Basically: the best way to build an addictive product is to solve a problem for the user whom you know best—yourself. Make the product so intuitive to use that it inspires investment. We overvalue our own work, so the more we invest, the higher the barrier to switching. Create variability in the level of reward—sometimes the user gets rewarded, other times he doesn’t. And he’s hooked. Hopefully the product is designed for good (and not for evil), since you now have a bunch of addicts on your hands.

My Review: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

The narrator is a complete lunatic, so the story inside his brain is a disgusting, disturbing and fun read. Imprinted in my mind the whole time was Bert Stern's iconic photograph of Lolita in the rearview mirror for the Kubrick film.


My Review: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

This is a book for the socially anxious, and for the human.

The central point is that people like people who like them and everyone is constantly thinking about whether people are liking them so if you want to be liked just show people you like them but if you try too hard to be liked people will notice you’re not focusing on liking them and won’t like you but if everyone is actually honest and just goes around asking people whether they like them all the time then the differentiating characteristics in our surface personalities on which people base their likes and dislikes would be eliminated so the answer to the question ‘do you like me’ would cease to have any meaning.

Other ideas:
- “All true art is music.”
- There can be no awareness of sin without awareness of transgression without awareness of limit.
- People have a psychological need to believe others take us as seriously as we take ourselves.
- Vulnerability can make us resent the person we feel vulnerable with.
- Sadness can be a type of narcissism where everything becomes about you and your struggle.
- A deep need for anything from other people makes us easy pickings.
- “This… is known as Werther’s Axiom, whereby… the intensity of a desire D is inversely proportional to the ease of D’s gratification. Known also as Romance.”

My Review: The End of Average by Todd Rose

Central ideas:

1) The moment the average became normal, the individual became error, and this reverberates throughout our educational system and our workplaces.

2) Disability is the mismatch between the needs of the individual and the service, product or environment offered. We can’t redesign a person, so naturally we should be looking to redesign the system.

3) The context principle states that individual behaviour cannot be explained outside of a specific situation, and the influence of a situation cannot be predicted without reference to the individual experiencing it. We tend to see other people as stable because we are part of their context.

4) Fit creates opportunity. If the environment is a bad match with our individuality, our performance will always be artificially impaired. If we get a good fit with our environment, we will have the opportunity to show what we are truly capable of.

My interpretation: Design for individuality means design for outliers only as far as it is true that we are all outliers. What does customizable design look like?

My Review: On Graphic Design as a Second Language by Bob Gill

He’s brilliant: 

- Too much variety is as boring as no variety.

- Take what you’ve seen a hundred times and notice it. 

- Unnatural catches your attention.

- The more detailed your problem definition, the more interesting your solution.

- If the words have to describe the image, your image sucks.

- “Have you ever noticed that when pictures that have been hanging on the wall for some time, are removed, they leave marks? These marks can become a fresh way of saying an art gallery has moved.”

My next three projects are def: collage, montage and repetition.

To note: this is technically my seventh language.

On writing

[Writing] a novel is like an acid trip. For the first forty-five minutes you’re thinking, “Hmm, this isn’t so intense. I can handle this.” Then you look down at your hands and flames are coming out of them.

- Steven Pressfield, Nobody wants to read your shit

Although Pressfield is a Duke alumnus, I’m comfortable saying that what I learned in the hour it took me to read his tongue-in-cheek guide to writing a novel, Nobody wants to read your shit, has completely changed how I write and how I understand stories, news, movies, research papers, etc.

Pressfield says stories are understood at the level of the soul and the soul is a conservative entity that expects certain elements. If you don’t deliver on those elements, the soul will feel something is missing. It’s not formulaic, it’s for the soul, he says.

Here are those elements (ahem, the formula):

1. Concept: What the story is about externally. Unique spin on or framing of an idea. Should be communicated clearly in a couple of sentences. For example, I just watched The Invitation: a man gets invited to a dinner party by his ex-wife and her new partner when he hasn’t seen her for two years after a tragic incident that led to a nasty divorce. The concept is reconnecting with an ex-wife after a divorce. The unique spin is reconnecting via a mysterious dinner party invitation after a two-year disappearance.

2. Theme: What the story is about internally. Internally, The Invitation is about coping with loss, grief and depression. The theme is that we have to work through our grief by letting ourselves mourn our losses but ultimately move forward into the future.

3. Protagonist: The story must have a protagonist and he must embody the theme. 

4. Antagonist: Not necessarily a person. Could be personal demons, the economy, American greed, etc. Must personify the counter-theme. If the theme argues for coping with grief and loss by letting yourself feel the pain but knowing your life has to continue (still talking about The Invitation), then the counter-theme personified by the antagonist could be the denial of loss or refusing to cope with the pain and just giving into depression. For the antagonist to be effective, his POV must be relatable to the reader. The reader must have the blood-chilling realization that under some circumstances, they, too, may not be able to cope with loss.

5. Structure: Beginning (Hook), Middle (Build), End (Payoff).
- Put your protagonist in danger as soon as possible: Your protagonist should want something desperately (stakes) and the obstacles to him getting it should be great, and should ratchet up throughout the course of the novel (jeopardy). The greater the jeopardy and the higher the stakes, the greater the reader's emotional investment and engagement with the material.

- Inciting Incident should begin the story and foreshadow the Climax.

- All is Lost moment is the protagonist’s darkest hour leading into the Climax. Try to make it as dark as possible.

- The Climax should be a clash between the protagonist and antagonist, the theme and the counter-theme on the issue of the theme and should pay off on everything that came before and resolve on the theme.

- Dialogue should have subtext: The worst dialogue is exactly what your characters are thinking. The greater the juxtaposition between what is being said and what is being communicated, the more powerful the emotion induced in the readers, because they will feel like they are participating in the moment.

Pressfield calls out the majority of noob writers out there, saying too often they write about themselves and their experiences (the writer’s version of the selfie), when the point of writing, and of art in general, is to offer something to someone else that they may find of value, either by expanding their mind or by challenging their notions. (Not by writing your life story disguised in a “fictional” protagonist. Not to say you can’t write your life story—it just has to have all of the above elements to provide value to the reader. :P)

Random, but in speaking of American literature mostly being hinged on the belief of the American dream (that we have control of our lives and that our actions lead to fitting reactions; which is not the convention in countries like Russia, which have experienced mass widespread turmoil), Pressfield mentions there is no Russian Mickey Mouse. Finally, someone who backs up my claim that growing up in Russia really is all math for fun.