Third week

Week three went well, at least in terms of no backsliding.

I read lots of articles and blogposts this week. I did of course read books, but am starting to wonder if I am going to be able to get through the list itself. So far, since starting the #TBR20 challenge, I’ve read four books I own. However only two of these have come from the list of books I said I’d read. Would it be cheating if I just read twenty books I own, rather than stick to the list?

This week I read Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel. The back of the book says it’s a “brilliantly told graphic memoir”. It’s billed as a sequel to Bechdel’s Fun House; where Fun House told the story of Bechdel’s father and her childhood, Are You My Mother? is about her relationship with her mother and spends some time looking at Bechdel’s love relationships and experiences in therapy as well. I enjoyed Fun House more, mainly because I wasn’t expecting to read so much about the life and work of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott in the book. (She also touches on Adrienne Rich’s writing, along with Virginia Woolf and Alice Miller.) I suppose if I’d wanted to learn more about child psychology this might have been an easy introduction to it. As it was I found it hard going in parts. I do love Bechdel’s style and honesty and think she is a fine artist.

The other book I read, and am still reading, is Leadership Without Excuses: How to Create Accountability and High Performance (Instead of Just Talking About It) by Jeff Grimshaw and Gregg Baron.

There are so many management/leadership/Holy Grail books out there, it can be hard to take them seriously. Management guru Peter Drucker himself said: “I never read management books.” And so many of them are written by and for people who work in the for-profit sector, and their focus on “growth” can often be less than useful for those of us who work in the government sector. And I’m mindful of the danger of too much reading and pondering and not enough action.

All that said, I find that reading some of these books does help me think through what I need to do. I find that reading descriptions of situations similar to what I experience or observe at work is helpful, as this helps me realise that my situation is not unique. I don’t have a lot of opportunity to talk with peers outside MPOW about people-related issues at work, so learning about others’ experiences through books helps me. And of course more importantly, learning skills or techniques to change or improve how I do things is very helpful. Take for instance this situation, as described in chapter 2 of Leadership Without Excuses:

Recently, a marketing team working on a high-stakes project came together for two days to prioritize activities and divvy up responsibilities. At the end of the second day, with everyone exhausted, the leader summarized the notes he’d taken about commitments and next steps. “Are we all on the same page?” Everyone nodded. “Did I miss anything?” Everyone shook their heads.

At this point, our consulting colleague, Emil Bohn, the facilitator, very diplomatically noted for the record that he wasn’t buying any of it. Emil believes that in the absence of explicit evidence to the contrary, the default assumption should be that a group of people does not have shared understanding about who is doing what by when. Why? Part of it is the inherent frailty of human communication: Of course there are going to be misunderstandings to clarify. But he also believes that there is sometimes a darker motive: “We collude with each other by keeping our requests ambiguous,” Emil says. “This provides all parties with an escape route—a convenient excuse they can deploy if needed.”

So instead of asking, “Are we all on the same page?” or “What am I missing?” and accepting predictable responses, one should conclude a meeting by going around the room and asking each person to say aloud what they are committing to do and by what date.

And what happened in the important team meeting when the tired participants did as Emil suggested? The same thing that happens every time he tries this experiment: Instant incredulity and scoffing at the prospect of such a mindnumbing activity, followed by resignation to it (Emil never backs down!), followed by the humbling discovery that more than half the people in the room had no idea what they had just committed to do by nodding their heads in agreement.

What I liked about this tip is that it’s a concrete and simple thing to do, to build understanding and accountability. I also like the fact that I’d figured this technique out myself and have used it when working on projects with a team of people. (Not to blow my own trumpet or anything ;)Leadership Without Excuses is just the book I need at the moment – helping me work things out and plan for work.

In other news, I managed to wander around the shops this weekend and not buy anything except two cakes of soap! So one unexpected outcome of this challenge might be a change to my spendthrift, insane consumer habits – which is a good thing. (I have considered that when I get through the twenty I could well lurch into a mad splurge. We’ll see.)

What will week four bring? I have just started reading Clive James’ Poetry Notebook.

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Second week

This week went a lot more smoothly than last week. That is, I did not buy any books. I achieved this feat by making a point of not going into any bookshops, even when the opportunity arose. Thus, after dinner on Friday night, instead of browsing in the local independent bookshop, as we normally do, we just went home. And this afternoon, after lunch, we just went home. I feel a bit strange, a bit bereft, but on the other hand, I’m pleased not to have succumbed.

This not-buying-books lark seems to be influencing my purchasing habits more generally. Yesterday I bought shampoo from my favourite shampoo purveyor online. Now, normally I would buy other things, ostensibly to make the most of the postage which I was having to pay anyway. Never mind if I really needed all the other things. (Thus I have a cupboard full of hand cream and lip balm and jojoba oil.) This time, I found myself thinking: I ought to use what I’ve already got, before I buy any more. And so I only bought shampoo! Win!

Reading-wise, this week I find myself reading slowly and enjoying what I’m reading.

The first book I have been reading this week is Per Petterson’s In the Wake.

Cartooning cover
Cover of Brunetti’s ‘Cartooning’

Of course I looked the author up and learned that he lost a few family members in the 1990 Scandinavian Star ferry disaster, as has the main character, Arvind, in In the Wake. I found the story hard to follow initially, as the writing moves from memory to present to memory. After a while I relaxed and didn’t worry so much about being 100% sure if I was seeing Arvind’s memories or present. And found that it was really like when you’re in the grip of strong memories. It’s really well done, and very moving. I am reading slowly, and don’t want it to end.

My second read this week is Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice by Ivan Brunetti. (This one’s not on my #TBR20 list, but I’m not cheating as it is a book I already own.)

It’s a little book and normally something I could read in a couple of hours, but I’ve found myself reading and re-reading and savouring it.

The book is a course of lessons on cartooning, and from the introduction:

This book evolved from the classes I have taught, which in turn evolved from my own struggles with cartooning. …The diligent student can read entire books on these subjects [perspective, lettering, figure drawing, etc.] if they wish (it never hurts), but the deepest realizations come to us from the daily practice of drawing. It is the pencil that teaches best, and anyway, the trees of theory can obscure the forest of practice. I would go so far as to say that practice is philosophy, for practice itself encompasses philosophy, and philosophy without practice is shallow indeed. A lengthy description of a glass of water is no substitute for the experience of drinking a glass of water; so it is with art.

(p.5. Emphasis mine: I love that phrase, an reminder for other aspects of life.)

Now, having just pondered and enjoyed those lines on practice, I should own up to the fact that all week I have been putting off actually starting Brunetti’s course. At first it was because I needed a sketch book before I could begin. (Never mind that I have so many exercise books, notebooks, and yes sketch books, that I could start my own stationer’s.)

I now have a new sketch book (sigh). I have forbidden myself from wondering about pencils.

 

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End of Week One TBR20 Challenge

Alas, dear reader, I have already fallen off the wagon. I Bought.Some.Books.

Yes, it’s only been ONE week.

In my defence, I was in Sydney this week. Sydney, home of the Fab Bookshop, Kinokuniya. I did consider not going to the shop at all, but it was enticingly situated between my hotel and the hotel where the conference I was attending was being held.

If you’ve not been to Kinokuniya, you’re missing a great experience. Apart from a very nice range of English language books, they also stock Japanese and Chinese language books. I always spend hours browsing the Chinese language works, which are from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. If I was in London I’d be visiting Foyles in Charing Cross Road, for instance. To me, visiting Kinokuniya when I am in Sydney is a bit like going to Foyles. But even better than going to Foyles because Kinokuniya has books in two languages I can read!!!!!!!!!!!1!! (I’m sure you get the picture, I like this shop, a lot.)

When you read accounts of people trying to overcome a drug addiction, they always tell you how going back to their familiar environments, where their also-addicted friends are, and where drug purveyors are easily accessible, makes it very likely they will weaken and fall back into old habits.

If I had not gone to the shop I might have been able to resist.

Instead, I went in, and of course all the usual justification started: I don’t get this range of books in Perth. I only buy Chinese language books when I come here. I can’t get this range of Chinese language books in Perth. These are such amazing books. I’ll just get these two [insert number here]… And so on.

Sigh.

In other, more positive news, I have managed to read TWO books I own. I had to stop reading one of the books in the list because I realised it (The Ghost Road by Pat Barker) was the third in a trilogy, and I hadn’t read the first two. My immediate impulse was to go see if I could buy/borrow the first book. I did stop myself. Instead I substituted it with Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

I finished Middlesex yesterday, and enjoyed it. (Of course, yes, I now want to read more of Jeffrey Eugenides’ work, but I don’t have any so I shan’t. I am beginning to see how my book-buying practices propagate themselves.)

What I enjoyed about Middlesex:

  • The span of the story – from the 1920s until the beginning of this century
  • Its setting in Smyrna, Turkey and the descriptions of the Turkish-Greek culture
  • Its intersex main character. (I knew almost nothing about people born with ambiguous genitalia. Now I know a little bit. Again I want to go and get more books to read about the topic. Stopping myself. Making notes instead.)

I did find it somewhat unbelievable that a relatively sheltered 14 year-old could survive as a performer in a strip club in 20th century San Francisco, but I thought that bit was still well done.

The other book I read (on the plane over to Sydney) was Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. I had the John Minford translation, which I found very easy to read. I wanted to know what all the fuss was about, and having read it, I suppose I can see why business leaders think it’s a worthy book. Its imagery (even if all about war) can be applied to situations where we need to think about strategy and planning, and one’s role as leader. As someone who has just been appointed to a leadership role at work, I particularly liked this:

There are Five Pitfalls
For a general:

Recklessness,

Leading to
Destruction;

Cowardice,

Leading to
Capture;

A hot temper,

Prone to
Provocation;

A delicacy of honour,

Tending to
Shame;

A concern for his men,

Leading to
Trouble.

(This is from page 50.)

One of the books I bought from Kinokuniya was The Art of War in Chinese. I bought an edition with the original Classical Chinese text, with contemporary Chinese alongside, plus extensive commentary and full colour illustrations. (How could I not??)

We went to yum cha this morning. After the meal I would normally have gone to browse in the local independent bookshop. I didn’t. (I wonder if the owner will miss me.)

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