Thursday, May 29, 2014

‘Loves God, Likes Girls’ (Book Review)

I was ecstatic the day that I scanned the 2013 Pepperdine Bible Lectureship catalog and saw that a woman named Sally Gary would be speaking on homosexuality. Like many other churches, the independent Churches of Christ tend to limit discussion on this controversial topic to a few pronouncements against it, never addressing the problems many congregations face: how to reach out to homosexual non-Christians, and how to encourage fellow Christians struggling with “same-sex attraction.”

Coming clean about her own situation, Gary opened the door wide for church-of-christers to have open and honest discussions about these issues. Her book Loves God, Likes Girls: A Memoir (Leafwood, 2013), released in time for the lectures, is an introduction to what most Christians would see as a completely foreign world of homosexual desire, even if they’ve experienced many of the same sorts of things that apparently drove Gary in that direction: a male-oriented church, a father who despised any signs of weakness or femininity, a learned sense of shame about one’s female sex organs and menstruation, etc.

In Gary’s childhood world, men were abusive and incompetent, yet got all the perks in life. To make it worse, as a maturing young woman, she believed herself ugly, undesirable to the opposite sex, and unable to succeed at “womanly” things. As Gary notes, sometimes it’s easier to live a “masculine persona” than to fail miserably at being a girl. Her fantasy of a perfect life took shape: life would be better if she could just be a boy. However, Gary has concluded that an active homosexual lifestyle is not the direction in which God wants her to go. So she aims to live virtuously even while continuing to struggle with loneliness and “same-sex attraction.”

Gary is not dogmatic. She doesn’t try to present her experience as the “typical” one. Nor does she recommend any “quick fix” solutions. (She admits to hot having them.) She merely wants to share her story and, through her ministry CenterPeace, create opportunities for discussion and community. Many people face the same temptations she has. Families and churches are continually being torn apart over homosexuality. While Loves God, Likes Girls: A Memoir isn’t the smoothest read – Gary is a better speaker, in my opinion – the book has cleared the way for more confession and greater acceptance in the churches of Christ.

Center Peace Promo from CenterPeace on Vimeo.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

‘Tender Buttons: The Corrected Centennial Edition’ (Book Review)

When we think of critical texts, the New Testament most often comes to mind. However, any piece of literature can potentially benefit from scholarly analysis and reconstruction to achieve as close as possible what the author originally intended. Seth Perlow has done exactly this with Tender Buttons: The Corrected Centennial Edition (City Lights Books, 2014), a new printing of Gertrude Stein’s famous collection of prose. At his disposal were the original manuscript, the first printed edition, and two separate sets of the author’s handwritten corrections. The result is a critical edition that can be appealing to scholars and layreaders alike. There are no messy brackets and footnotes to disturb your reading, yet toward the end of the book, inquisitive readers will find sample facsimiles, a brief word from the editor, and a “List of Variances” that references alternative readings.

You will also notice that this edition is fairly free from interpretation. There’s no introduction, footnotes, or the like to guide your reading. Contemporary poet Juliana Spahr does contribute an essay that touches on the history of interpreting Stein’s works, along with some references suitable for future research. However, being an afterward, it is conveniently located at the end, giving the impression that it’s not to take away from the reader’s initial contact with the work.

Now, you’ve probably concluded that I’m well-satisfied with this edition. But what about the book in and of itself? That’s a different story. Not being familiar with modern literature styles, I was out of my element reading Tender Buttons. Scholars have debated as to how to understand Stein’s writing in light of her feminism, lesbianism, and controversial politics. In the section titled “Rooms,” I noticed some parts that introduced ideas about gender and sex, but I didn’t get a sense that those subjects dominated. Stein is also noted for her role in the development of Cubism, bringing a multiple perspective or multi-dimensional approach to literature as Pablo Picasso did to painting. In the “Objects” section, I could sense this cubist sort of style in “A Carafe, That is a Blind Glass” and “A Red Hat,” which made me think I was on the right track. In general, however, I can’t say I really get it. In the afterward, Spahr mentions that some have speculated whether or not Gertrude Stein was stoned when she wrote Tender Buttons. If that’s the case, maybe her poems were never meant to be understood.

Disclaimer: I received this copy of Tender Buttons: The Corrected Centennial Edition as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.

Friday, May 23, 2014

‘Lost at Sea’ (Book Review)

Not everyone gets to interview a robot, retrace James Bond’s steps in Goldfinger, and investigate a death on a Disney cruise. But we might get the impression that such things are ordinary in the glamorous life of Jon Ronson. The Guardian journalist known for The Men Who Stare at Goats, which later became a movie, has had some strange assignments over the years, leaving him with many stories to tell…some that will probably raise your eyebrows as they did mine.

You see, Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries tackles some heavy and controversial topics – celebrity sex offenders, assisted suicides, religious cults, the SETI program. But oddly enough, Ronson still comes across as insightful and fresh, even when I’m not inclined to agree with his perspective. The author’s engaging mix of investigative and “gonzo” journalism makes for a great bedside read that might end up keeping you up longer than expected. I had to read it twice before finally settling down to review it. I also got a great deal of unexpected laughs out the book. And although there’s a bit of language – as would be expected these days – the author, I’m happy to say, isn’t the type who resorts to crude humor. His interviewees provide him with enough real material for the readers to laugh at.

Although I enjoyed the book (and now take a peek at Ronson’s articles online now and then), I have to wonder: What was he trying to accomplish with Lost at Sea? It’s not his final book, but feels a bit like a memoir, a sort of “best of” collection of articles. When googling Ronson, I half expected to find him retired, but he’s still writing for The Guardian, interviewing some rather unusual characters, and planning his next big journalistic adventure as a passenger aboard a Virgin Galactic’s space ship. If Lost at Sea wasn’t some sort of farewell, it starts looking like an attempt to cash in on one’s popularity. I really hope not. I would hate to see Ronson’s great writing cheapened that way.

Disclaimer: I received a complementary uncorrected proof copy of Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries from the Penguin Group. A favorable review was not required.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

‘Murder in Pigalle’ (Book Review)

Back in March (2014), mystery writers Rhys Bowen and Cara Black made an appearance at the Alhambra Civic Library for a panel discussion about their work. Hearing Black talk about her latest book, Murder in Pigalle, piqued my interest. I decided to give the fourteenth novel in her Aimée Léduc series a try.

The book is set in Quartier Pigalle, a district in Paris historically known for its wild nightlife – clubs, brothels, and the like. (Think Moulin Rouge…I mean literally. That’s where it’s located.) Private Investigator Aimée Léduc is pregnant and should be taking it easy, as her hormonal behavior proves, but she can’t stop worrying about her young friend Zazie. The thirteen-year-old was in the middle of her own investigation behind another girl’s sexual assault when she disappears. Aimée is convinced this is more than a mere coincidence even if the police are not, and finds herself on the trail of a serial rapist and murderer. The closer she gets, the more someone tries to shut her up.

Now when I read fiction, the most important thing to me is whether the story is engaging. A strong beginning and a heart-wrenching plot lured me in. Really, who can’t help but sympathize with Aimée’s desperation to find this dear girl? I finished Murder in Pigalle in about four days, a quick read for me especially since it was final exam week for my students. It delivered well on the excitement. However, the story seemed disjointed, fluttering from here to there. Although dead ends, false leads, and side plots make for a realistic story, in the end I felt like the really important characters weren’t given equal time. The final resolution seemed to come out of nowhere and was more than a little disappointing.

I also think Black could improve on how she portrays French people. The characters seemed too American, and used too many “Americanisms” in their dialogue. (Do Europeans really ever say “Eurotrash”?) The history lessons felt like an attempt to cover up the missing presence of a distinctive culture. The insertion of random French words, although nowhere near as obnoxious Etiquette Grrls’ habit, didn’t add the authenticity that I suspect the author was going for. When I read authors like Agatha Christie and Alexander McCall Smith (of No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency fame), I really feel as if I’m in a different time and place. With Murder in Pigalle, I never once felt as though I were in France, and the promise of that experience had been part of its initial attraction for me.

As for the main characters, I’m entering the series so late in the game, so I don’t have the benefit of knowing their past histories that might make sense of their behavior at times. Aimée Léduc seems to be a great PI. She’s adventurous and willing to risk her own neck (not to mention her unborn child) to solve this case. She reminds me of Nora Charles (of The Thin Man) walking around with a prop dog, although her infatuation with designer labels gives her a lot less class. What bugs me about Aimée Léduc is that for her “the ends justify the means.” That is, breaking the law herself is okay if it means convicting her suspect or saving her own skin. Her selfishness is evident in how she actively shuts out her baby’s father, who’s clearly interested in having a relationship with the child. Instead she eats up the slavish devotion of her business partner René Friant, who seems to be more of a liability than an asset for her detective agency.

Let me psychoanalyze for a bit. René’s short stature and inability to bed the heroine makes him envious of other men blessed with good looks and active sex lives. SPOILER ALERT: His eagerness to play the hero, protecting the helpless female population from sexual predators, leads him to threaten and attack an innocent man rather than carefully questioning him first. Things get even worse when René meets the actual rapist. It should be common knowledge that, when someone has effectively been “taken out” and is no longer a threat, it’s cruel and excessive to continue to apply force. René kicks the subdued suspect…in the groin…twice. Clearly he has serious problems where his masculinity is concerned.

Where does this leave Murder in Pigalle? Well, it well-represents its genre: a fun mystery novel to curl up with at night. I was able to enjoy the story because I just accepted the characters for who they were, flaws and all. While I don’t see myself becoming a fan of the series, I might be willing to pick up another volume sometime just because I feel like it.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The 2014 Life Fest Film Festival (A Review)

Finally, missing the past few years, I was finally able to attend the Life Fest Film Festival. The event seeks out movies and documentaries that highlight the importance and dignity of human life. You might say that it has a generalized “pro-life” mission. This year, prior commitments kept me from days one and two, which apparently featured the best film selections, but on day three I managed to drive over to Family Theatre Productions, a Catholic media center in Hollywood, for the closing set of films and workshops. Here are my thoughts on the programmed works for that day.

First off was The War on Humans, the documentary tie-in to new ebook by Wesley J. Smith is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and blogger on Human Exceptionalism, part of the National Review Online. Now I’ve watched and appreciated a number of Discovery Institute films, but this one rubbed me the wrong way. (What a way to start off the day!) To start off, it sensationalizes the controversy over animal rights while simultaneously admitting that these claims haven’t made headway in court. It appears that the DI is making a mountain out of some small fringe group’s molehill to…to do what? Get Christians panicked over another perceived threat to their well-being? Don’t we have better things to worry about? Apparently not. So the film continues, yet it never actually builds a case for “human exceptionalism.” We’re confronted with two conflicting premises: Other living things like plants and animals have equal rights as people, versus they don’t. The audience is never told why the latter is true, just that it is. Other unsubstantiated claims made: Somehow “human exceptionalism” implies (in fact, requires) humans to be kind to the lesser living creatures. (It does? How? They’re avoiding backing this up with the necessary moral claims.) And Darwin’s evolution, reducing man to a mere animal, implies that people must reduce their consumption and fertility so that other creatures can be better off. (Really? And whatever happened to the “survival of the fittest”? I don’t see cheetahs worrying about gazelle’s rights!) I don’t have time for such dribble. If you do, be my guest:

Second came the short drama Evelyn (directed by J.D. Flom), about a police detective frustrated with his demanding job and inattentive to his sick wife. I felt that this had been a rush job to make a deadline. Whatever change of heart the protagonist was supposed to have, it wasn’t convincingly written into the story. The film was plagued with poor lighting, low-quality filming, sound balance issues, missing props (e.g., a police badge), plot holes, and a confusing premise. Went it ended I was a bit confused, not as to why it was submitted, but why it was chosen to screen.

Next up were the 5×5 Competition Films Screenings. Similar to the 168 Film Project, the 5×5 Competition gives filmmakers five days to shoot a five-minute short constrained by the festivals theme, a character name, a line, and a prop. This year, about a dozen group started off, but only two actually finished, submitting a completed film by the deadline. And unfortunately, a technological glitch kept one of the entries titled Forced from screening. [Guess what? D.A.S.H. Entertainment, maker of Forced spotted my blog post, and provided a link (below). The short looks at the fairly recent practice of mandatory sterilization to prevent black welfare mothers and other undesirables of the time from procreating. I really wish I'd been able to view it and vote for it last Saturday.]

Your $1 Hamburger, which appeared to have been filmed on a phone, was about “buckaroos.” I was confused about how its subject fit its title and the festivals overall theme.

To pad the time slot, past winners were also screened. The 2013 one was Life Lessons from a Young Girl (directed by Mark Dendy), based on a true story involving an attempted suicide. I think that the five-minute time limit didn’t allow the filmmakers to do the subject justice, and I didn’t appreciate its needless overt politics. The 2012 winner was The Choice, addressed unplanned pregnancy. I liked some of the husband-wife banter, but the actors didn’t come across as physicians (which wasn’t really pertinent to the story). The ending was cute.

In the afternoon came the “Shorts Compilation”: Graham Messadieh’s Red Phone, as a distraught alcoholic father is transported into his memories in a fashion reminiscent of The Matrix. The script falls into the category of those that hide too much from the audience. I had a difficult time getting into the story.

Red Phone Teaser from Graham Messadieh on Vimeo.

Based on some true life events, Chris Kato’s The Christmas Gift was a cute short about a Jewish father, disabled and out of work, who wants to buy a teddy bear for his daughter. One thing I appreciated was the consistency in directing. Too often in indie films, when a director also acts, the quality noticeably changes depending on when he is or isn’t present in a scene. I’m not an expert, of course, but this didn’t seem to be the case with Kato’s work.

Also entertaining was Patrick Sabongui’s Shakey’s Coffee. This coming-of-age short has a young man finding his inner-strength through a poem that once inspired an aging veteran (who owns a café, in case you were wondering). The film suffered from repetition, sound balance issues, and poor editing when the poem was recited. The plot was too predictable, but I enjoyed the laughs, the product of good timing and a suitable cast.

Oksana (directed by Ray Arthur Wang) took me by surprise. An Indian-American and an “American Indian” adopting a Russian girl sounded like something I would’ve screened back in the days of the Mixed Roots Film Festival (now replaced by the Mixed Remixed Festival), but the issues of mixed marriages, transnational adoption, and culture shock were never really the focus of this short. The desire to hurt others, the scandal of child molestation, and forgiveness are themes that could’ve come up a more traditional family. SPOILER ALERT: What concerned me was the film’s implication that a false accusation of this sort would be (or could be) cleared up so easily and so quickly. I suspect that, in reality, the investigative process and the restoration of the falsely accused’s reputation would take a while, especially if a child was involved. The ending was to hunky-dory to be convincing.

The Calm Before (directed by Rupert-Anthony Ortiz), dealing with the pain of losing a child, was another one of those films that actively tried to keep the audience in the dark. I also had to roll my eyes at the casting of a woman as the devil. Unlike the sexually-ambiguous fair-complexioned Satan in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Jesus Christ, who just so happened to be played by a woman, this obviously female one being defeated by a male Christ-like figure seemed to play up to misogynistic stereotypes too many men hold. To make things clear, I’m not accusing Ortiz of anything; but this just didn’t sit well with me. I’ve seen the bad girl/good boy thing in books and films too often to ignore it.

The best short, in my opinion, was Eline Leslie Meier’s When the Smiling Stops, made in memory of her parents’ struggle with Alzheimer's disease. Although I was mentally deducting points for its My Big Fat Greek Wedding meets The Notebook beginning, the plot quickly took a more original turn. The acting was strong, and the ending drove me to tears, as would be anyone else who can identify with the pain of caring for someone affected by this terrible disease.

The final screening of my day was Hannah Allison’s Labeled, an exposé on “special needs” children being denied necessary medical care. I have to say this film really, really needed to be made…I’m just not convinced that a sixteen-year-old and her potentially-biased parents were the best people to do it, regardless of the medical qualifications of her mother. The documentary was unbalanced and so poorly edited that it became a bit tiresome to watch. Instead of educating the audience about the problem, the film relied on appeals to emotions, filling up an hour running time with frustrated parents, gushing siblings, pictures of smiling disabled children, and political references. Noticeably absent were interviews with medical experts on the diseases and any serious discussions about legal recourse. The filmmakers preferred to rely on their own limited research skills. It’s no surprised that they ended up repeatedly confusing the conclusion of an article with the position of a medical journal and its editors. I’m also suspicious that they engaged in “quote mining” and may have failed to thoroughly investigate all the relevant literature. Again, if “labeled” children suffering from genetic diseases really are facing these sorts of discrimination, then this needs to be made public and fast. But it’s impossible to take seriously someone who hasn’t graduated from using the argumentum ad Hitlerum. I’ve known more than one young starry-eyed filmmaker who takes on a big project before he or she is ready. Like many of them, I hope to see Hannah Allison bounce back with work of a higher quality in the near future.

Labeled - Official Trailer from Hannah Allison on Vimeo.

Couldn’t keep a 6-year-old birthday girl waiting, so I wasn’t able to catch Driving Blind (directed by Brian Griffo), a roadtrip film about two brothers who suffer from Choroideremia (CHM), a degenerative eye disease, and decide to take in some sightseeing before their eyesight is gone for good. The documentary is available for purchase online; so, hopefully, I’ll have a chance to see this one at a later date. I once tutored a student who was suffering from the same thing (or something similar). It was amazing to hear him talk about preparing for permanent blindness and how that affected the choices he made. Too bad I lost contact with him, or I’d recommend the film.

Driving Blind - Trailer from Brian James Griffo on Vimeo.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The 2014 Newport Beach Film Festival (A Review)

From April 24 to May 1, 2014, one of my favorite Orange County events, the Newport Beach Film Festival, celebrated its 15th anniversary. As you all know, I had a busy, emotionally-charged week, and unfortunately had to miss out on a lot of films, including Belle, a drama about Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761–1804) the illegitimate mulatto daughter of British Admiral Sir John Lindsay, and The Immigrant, which is based on the real-life experiences of Ellis Island detainees. Hopefully, I’ll get to see both of these at a later time. Right now, I’d like to share some thoughts on the films I did manage to catch in case you come across them later on.

The first movie I saw was the documentary short Reporting on The Times: The New York Times and The Holocaust, which takes America’s most popular newspaper to task for its minimal of publicizing Nazi crimes against Jews during World War II. Rather than front-page headlines with large photographs, the stories were short single columns placed on the inside among other war stories. I had mixed feelings about how all of this was presented. Even though most of the interviewees seemed willing to give Sulzberger the benefit of the doubt and accept the past for what it was, I found the overall tone of the film needlessly accusatory. The filmmaker seemed intent on making publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger out to be a bad guy, yet I was thoroughly impressed that he would've allowed 1,000s of articles to be printed at all, in spite of American society being rather self-absorbed and generally hostile towards Jews. The Times really could’ve played it safe and completely ignored what was happening. Even though there are plenty of caveats given, my impression was that the film gives the impression that the newspaper could’ve stopped the Holocaust…a bit unrealistic in my opinion. Add that it was extremely bad form to present footage of German American Bund activities in such a way as to suggest that that group’s politics was representative of the American population as a whole. Despite the Madison Square Garden rally (1939) for which it’s infamous, the Bund remained extremely unpopular, even among German Americans, and although the United States cultural climate has been identified as generally anti-Semitic during that time, that’s not the same as pro-Nazi. Was Reporting on The Times well made? Sure. Most viewers would probably find it worth their time. However, so far it hasn’t made my list of favorites. I will check out the film’s inspiration, Laurel Leff’s Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper, though. Books often have a way of making stronger arguments than what come out in films.

Reporting on The Times Preview from Emily Harrold on Vimeo.

Next up was Before The Revolution, a fascinating documentary and touching tribute to its filmmaker’s parents. During the Shah’s regime in Iran, Israelis migrated for prime job opportunities and then were forced to leave as the Revolution gained full force. I love it when filmmakers use home videos, and this one had a lot of his own family’s material at his disposal. Although the Persian viewpoint was rather absent from the film – there being only one interviewee, and apparently not eye-witness – I appreciated the filmmaker’s efforts to get a variety of Israeli perspectives: government officials, embassy security, business men, family members, etc. They showed the diversity of life experiences and opinions about Israel’s political relationships with Iran. What was rather ironic was one woman’s defense that they were living such a good life that they didn’t pay any attention to the oppression around them. I say “ironic” because that’s an excuse generally criticized when given in connection with the Holocaust, and this film was paired with Reporting on The Times, mentioned above. Another point about balance: The film left me wondering about the Persian Jews, who were indirectly referenced when someone remembered an anti-Israeli political slogan that suggested that non-Israeli Jews didn’t pose a threat to the Revolutionaries. I wondered whether the Persian and Israeli Jews got along during the Shah’s regime and how the former group has fared since the Revolution. Guess I’ll have to wait for another documentary.

On the final day of the festival, my husband and I watched Untouchable: Children of God, an exposé on the trafficking of Nepalese girls, who are forced to work as prostitutes in India. In this type of documentary, testimonies from victims and interviews with political activists are normally expected. This film had a unique surprised though: some footage from within a brothel thanks to the efforts of undercover cameramen. Unfortunately, I thought that it should’ve been more carefully used with a narrator explaining what had been filmed. Instead we were treated to repetition after repetition of the same dizzying and blurry scenes without much of a clue as to how the filmmaker wanted us to interpret them. This poor use of a footage goldmine disappointed me, and it highlighted the central problem of the whole film: very sloppy editing. I was, however, relieved to hear director Grant Knisely announce during the Q&A that the film was still going through some reworking. I’m looking forward to seeing the finished product at a later date. The cause against sex trafficking is very dear to me. I’d be saddened if some production mistakes prevented this film from reaching a wide audience.

UNTOUCHABLE: CHILDREN OF GOD - Sneak Preview from Grant Knisely on Vimeo.

Next up was something different: the feature film Cas & Dylan is a Canadian roadtrip comedy about an aging widower doctor and an energetic young wannabe writer who inadvertently cross paths and end up helping each other through some tough situations. Yes, I did say “comedy,” but I’m using the term loosely. Spoiler Alert: The film addresses a bunch of serious issues such as grief, domestic violence, unplanned pregnancy, and euthanasia. While I don’t agree with some of the things presented in the film, it was in no way “preachy.” I felt that I could really sympathize with the characters, as odd as they were, and appreciate the direction the film took.

Closing out was another Canadian film, Our Man In Tehran. A bit of a rush job to release within one year of Argo, this documentary attempts to set the record straight on a number of counts in telling the story of the six U.S. embassy personnel who escaped post-revolutionary Iran disguised as a Canadian movie crew (1980). This film shows how Canadian Ambassador to Iran Ken Taylor, Prime Minister Joe Clark, and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Flora MacDonald, along with some Canadian embassy staff and their spouses, successfully managed to hide and smuggle out these Americans in the midst of political upheaval both at home and abroad. This film was funny, exciting, shocking, and everything. It successfully told both personal and national stories. It is a wonderful example of how careful editing can eliminate any need for a narrator and still allow for a coherent storyline. The only serious downside was initially my husband’s complaint: When recounting the history leading up to the Iran Hostage Crisis, the film ignores the Iranian coup d’état (1953) during which the United States government successfully returned the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi back to power. Without this background information, the viewer is tempted to side with the film, believing that the Persian Revolutionaries were being unrealistic in assuming that the U.S. would aid the Shah’s return in 1979. With this background information, it seems quite reasonable that it might have.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

How Excellent Companies Avoid Dumb Things (Book Review)

We know that change is good, but it’s not always clear as to how we can successfully implement it. As a result, things continue on as usual, and our businesses, government agencies, and non-profit organizations – and yes, that includes churches – continue to waste resources, miss grand opportunities, and struggle to build a lasting, effective community. Where do we continually go wrong?

Neil Smith, CEO of Promontory Growth and Innovation (PGI), and Patricia O'Connell, former Management Editor at Bloomberg, have the answer. In the awkwardly titled How Excellent Companies Avoid Dumb Things: Breaking the 8 Hidden Barriers that Plague Even the Best Businesses (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), they identify reasons why the improvements you want to make never leave the drawing board. These barriers include your management being risk adverse, trying to avoid controversies that will inevitably rock the boat; poor prioritization of activities; and even the way your company’s departments are organized.

But all not hopeless. The “PGI Promise” can help you knock down these 8 Barriers with 12 Principles and successfully institute a change-friendly culture in your business. Smith shows how to get executives involved in a non-threatening way, managers committed to enforcing changes, and employees eager to contribute their revenue-building and cost-saving ideas. Be forewarned though: You might have to weed through some lesser-quality material to get to the helpful parts. In fact, you might just want to scan the Introduction and Chapter 9 and call it read. The book suffers from repetitive content; cheesy personal life examples that take away from the relevant real-life business examples; and a lot of PGI promotions. Worse still, the long quoted passages from clinical psychologist Richard Levak seem to indicate that Smith doesn’t feel entirely confident in his own qualifications. Working with Bank of America, Heinz, and MasterCard isn’t enough. Apparently, he has to rely on someone else to give him credibility.

So, should you read How Excellent Companies Avoid Dumb Things: Breaking the 8 Hidden Barriers that Plague Even the Best Businesses? If you’re having trouble implementing change in your business, then this book might be a great place to start. At the very least, it can help get the conversation going, and that has a lot of value in and of itself.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of How Excellent Companies Avoid Dumb Things: Breaking the 8 Hidden Barriers that Plague Even the Best Businesses through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. I was not required to write a favorable review.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Challenging Grief

A Hibernating Tree, Custom House Plaza, Monterey State Historic Park (March 2013)
A Hibernating Tree, Custom House Plaza,
Monterey State Historic Park (March 2013)
They say death comes in threes. That was true for me recently. After a month of emotionally-charged practices, my sisters and I sang at the memorial service for a dear friend at Saturday. He had been a church elder when we were kids, and he and his wife were like another set of grandparents to us for many years. Within a day after, I heard that the husband of one my great aunts and another kind elderly man from my former congregation had also passed away.

Now all three men had been living on borrowed time for years, and their states of health suggested that things were probably coming to a rapid close. However, their deaths still came as a bit of a shock. Add to all this a sudden bout of the flu and the pressures of wrapping up a stressful semester, one filled with scheduling mix-ups and problems with students cheating and just being plain bratty, and you can see that I’m a bit frazzled. This past week I only got to attend two brief days of the 2014 Newport Beach Film Festival, and missed the 2014 Pepperdine Bible Lectures entirely, two events that because of my respective NBFF volunteer history and Church of Christ ties I try not to miss. I genuinely feel as though my life has turned upside down in the last week.

It’s a strange coincidence that last month I just happened to join a book club at the local library and it so happened that the month of April’s selection was Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. This memoir follows the author as she struggles to cope with her mother’s death and finds peace hiking portions of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), a 2,663-mile long passage that stretches from the Mexican to the Canadian border.

Overall I liked the book, as it brought back some humorous childhood memories of backpacking in the same Sierra Nevada. More importantly, I grew to appreciate the author’s drive to overcome a rather eyebrow-raising past and remake her life for the better in light of the personal tragedy with which she was struggling.

Maybe I should take note. It’s not that I believe grieving is wrong. Taking your time with it is very important for a full recovery. I was able to move on from two heartbreaks and countless other deaths because I allowed myself to take whatever time necessary to heal, be it days or years. Only after a proper grieving period is it really possible to look beyond the gray skies towards a bright horizon. And that’s what I see: a bright future in the making. That’s the strange thing about death: it gives hope for rebirth.