Treating People Well: The Extraordinary Power of Civility at Work and in Life by Lea Berman and Jeremy Bernard

34684624Former White House social secretaries Lea Berman, who worked for George and Laura Bush, and Jeremy Bernard, who worked for Michelle and Barack Obama, have written an entertaining and uniquely practical guide to personal and professional success in modern life. These Washington insiders share what they’ve learned through first person examples of their own glamorous (and sometimes harrowing) moments with celebrities, foreign leaders and that most unpredictable of animals—the American politician.

This book is for you if you feel unsure of yourself in social settings, if you’d like to get along more easily with others, or if you want to break through to a new level of cooperation with your boss and coworkers. They give specific advice for how to exude confidence even when you don’t feel it, ways to establish your reputation as an individual whom people like, trust, and want to help, and lay out the specific social skills still essential to success – despite our increasingly digitized world. Jeremy and Lea prove that social skills are learned behavior that anyone can acquire, and tell the stories of their own unlikely paths to becoming the social arbiters of the White House, while providing tantalizing insights into the character of the first ladies and presidents they served.

 

Review:

Social secretaries plan all kinds of events, from state dinners and the Easter egg roll to Congressional picnics and private lunches.  The authors speak from their own experience about how it’s done while dispensing advice on, as the title suggests, treating people well.

Berman and Bernard talk about their time at the White House under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively.  The tips they give aren’t groundbreaking (begin with confidence, be consistent, listen first and talk later) but they’re things we should all be reminded of.  I learned some new things, too, like good ways to start a thank you note. (Hint: it’s not “Thank you for…”)

What I enjoyed most were the anecdotes about working in the White House.  Both authors have a glowing admiration for the presidents and first ladies they served and it shows.There are tales of near disaster, like when Berman who, when an interpreter refused to move to their proper seat, tipped them out of their chair (!).  They also talk about how they came into the position, especially interesting for Bernard as he was both the first man and the first openly gay person to be social secretary.

Fitting presidential quotes round things out.  I listened to Treating People Well on audio and like that the authors narrate their own stories and experiences.  A third narrator covers the introduction and interstitial text.

While I wouldn’t say it’s an authoritative volume about being your best at work nor the best White House memoir, it is an enjoyable combination of the two.

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Fashion Climbing by Bill Cunningham

38820052I’m not a fashionista by any stretch but I like me a good fashion documentary.  The September Issue gave me a grounding in this topsy turvy world, after which I gravitated to Bill Cunningham New York.  Cunningham was a private person, almost to the point of being a loner, so when I saw his posthumous memoir would be published the first week of September (natch) I snapped it up.

I knew Cunningham as a fashion photographer for the New York Times who did lovely On the Street videos. Treat yourself to a few here, here, and here – I dare you to watch without smiling.  But before he picked up a camera he was a Boston boy who loved clothes, was drafted into the Army, and became a milliner upon his return.  This memoir covers this early period of his life, so if you’re looking for info on his photography or modern day notables like Anna Wintour you will be disappointed.

Cunningham starts with his childhood, growing up as part of an Irish Catholic family that did not approve of his playing dress up in his sister’s clothes.  In fact, his family approved of little that he did, from dropping out of Harvard and moving to New York to becoming a hat designer.  Reading between the lines you can infer the pain that must have caused but Cunningham rarely discusses his inner life.  We get all the action instead – working as a stock boy in Boston department stores, getting a lucky posting in France during the Korean War, and moving to New York and feasting his eyes on fashion.

The account appears to be written around 1970 and I had to keep reminding myself that.  Modern me bristled at women designers being called “girls”.  He crashed party after party to look at the clothes the women were wearing, and I had to tell myself that 60 years ago that was more of a social faux pas than a criminal one.

Cunningham’s writing is down to earth, and in the book he says kitchen-table style is preferable to sending the reader to the dictionary.  As a result the tone is almost conversational and kept drawing me back to the page.

You will find many insights into his thinking here, such as why he never accepted anything while working, not even a glass of water.  As the narrative catches up to the time of writing the telling slows down, going over each collection of hats, each year in the fashion world.  While I would have liked more info about his early life I get the feeling that he only shared what he wanted to, and I respect that.

I enjoyed the read but if you’ve never heard of Cunningham this is probably not the place to start. First watch Bill Cunningham New York, become smitten, then read this memoir to fill in the gaps.

Thanks to Penguin Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic’s Wild Ride to the Edge and Back by Kevin Hazzard

25111005A former paramedic’s visceral, poignant, and mordantly funny account of a decade spent on Atlanta’s mean streets saving lives and connecting with the drama and occasional beauty that lies inside catastrophe.

In the aftermath of 9/11 Kevin Hazzard felt that something was missing from his life—his days were too safe, too routine. He signed up for emergency medical training and became, at age twenty-six, a newly minted EMT running calls in the worst sections of Atlanta.

Combining indelible scenes that remind us of life’s fragile beauty with laugh-out-loud moments that keep us smiling through the worst, A Thousand Naked Strangers is an absorbing read about one man’s journey of self-discovery—a trip that also teaches us about ourselves.

Review:

Being an EMT is a crazy job.  It’s your duty to keep people alive long enough to get to the hospital.  Sometimes they’re dead before you arrive at the scene.  Other times it’s a spry-looking man complaining about a toothache.  And sometimes you drive past the address you were given because the shooting hasn’t stopped yet.

Hazzard joined this world for ten years and takes us along for the ride.  A word of warning for the squeamish – there’s a fair share of gore and gallows humor, and know that the nature of the job doesn’t lend itself to overflowing empathy.  I didn’t bother me but I work in medicine so your mileage may vary.

The writing is good and the crazy stories are indeed batshit crazy.  Hazzard gets at the soul of the job when he writes,

Medics don’t have to be heroic or tough or even good people.  They simply have to enjoy the madness…. [It’s] a willingness to walk in unprotected when we clearly should walk away.  A desire to take part but just as often to bear witness.

But mainly he does it

Because it’s fun.

I listened on audio and am so glad I did – Hazzard is a natural storyteller and George Newbern does an amazing job with the narration.  He gets all the jokes, the pauses and nuances right on, to the point that I thought the author was reading his own work.

A Thousand Naked Strangers may not be for everyone but I really enjoyed it – a nice addition to my first responder memoir shelf.

Making Things Right: The Simple Philosophy of a Working Life by Ole Thorstensen

Translated by Sean Kinsella

35787524Making Things Right is the simple yet captivating story of a loft renovation, from the moment master carpenter and contractor Ole Thorstensen submits an estimate for the job to when the space is ready for occupation. As the project unfolds, we see the construction through Ole’s eyes: the meticulous detail, the pesky splinters, the problem solving, patience, and teamwork required for its completion. Yet Ole’s narrative encompasses more than just the fine mechanics of his craft. His labor and passion drive him toward deeper reflections on the nature of work, the academy versus the trades, identity, and life itself.

Review:

I am always here for non-fiction in translation so when I saw this title as an audiobook I scooped it up.  Using the framework (ha) of a loft renovation Thorstensen shows what it’s like to be an independent contractor in Norway.

Most of the book is process – how bids are calculated, how materials are ordered and brought into the loft via a crane, how you make sure the floor of a bathroom is water-tight.  It’s fine and good, but this electrician’s daughter was slightly bored by the details.

My favorite bits were the ones between – talking about how people from different places and backgrounds enter the trades, what gets played on the radio, how people in different parts of Norway opt for different kinds of construction.  I was cuted out when he gave to small kids, who were going to live in the loft once it was done, free rein to draw in pencil all over the drywall.  They marked out the rooms, still only plans, and drew airplanes as they saw fit.  Adorable and heartwarming.

27427788I ran into a few issues, though.  Unfortunately the translation and audiobook narration do not mesh well.  It sounds like a British English translation read by someone who knows Norwegian and speaks with an American accent.  On top of that it sounds like some terms were slapdash “translated” into American without much thought.

For example, at one point the text reads “6.25 feet”.  This strikes me as poor translation from metric – I’d call that “six feet three inches”.  But 6.25 feet stands, and it’s read aloud as “six point twenty five feet”, which sounds even worse.  Six and a quarter feet, six point two five feet… why “point twenty five”?

There are also some terms that seem common in European discourse that I’ve never heard before.  I found myself googling “social dumping” and “passive housing”, terms that make no sense unless you’re familiar.  I may just be ignorant but a gloss in the text would have been appreciated.

Likewise, at one point Thorstensen lists radio programs he listens to while working.  “[so-and-so] does a great radio show”, he says, with no further info.  I desperately wanted one more word in there – a great music show, a great interview show, a great comedy show… something.  I don’t think you have to explain every unfamiliar reference (there are many more) but some could use this minimal, additional info.

All in all Making Things Right is an okay book, but if you’re looking for great carpentry memoirs go for Nina MacLaughlin’s Hammer Head instead.

Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot

35840657Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Bipolar II, Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma. The triumphant result is Heart Berries, a memorial for Mailhot’s mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her father—an abusive drunk and a brilliant artist—who was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.

Review:

(First some trigger warnings, especially for suicidal ideation and an attempt, abuse, and eating disorders.)

There is so much to admire here.  Allow me to list the ways:

  • Mailhot puts her story on the page in a way that’s both spare and evocative, simultaneously emotional and unsympathetic.  It’s like she takes the glass form of a memoir, smashes it at her feet, and rearranges it best for her truth, complete with stray debris and blood from her cut hands.
  • The writing is amazing.  Some chapters have an intricate internal logic that I’ll need to revisit to fully appreciate, and the one liners are art.

    I think of you often, but there are still spaces unchanged by you.

    I learned that any power asks you to dedicate your life to its expansion.

    Men objectify me, to such a degree that they forget I eat.  You feed your dog more kindly than you feed me.  That’s men.

  • Some chapters fairly jump off the page – the first is one of these and I was sure I had a five star read in my hands.  The good is blow the roof off amazing so maybe I’m greedy to want that all the way through, but some of the middle essays fell flat for me.  I’m hoping that changes on a reread.
  • The forward and Q&A afterward provide context and helped me build a framework to situate my thoughts.  Skip them at your own peril as they add so much to the work.  I’d also recommend reading Heart Berries in as large gulps as possible.  My own reading was spread over two weeks and feels diluted because of it.

Overall this is an unrelenting, masterfully written work – not my usual fare but I loved it all the same.

Thanks to Counterpoint and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich

34127677Ehrlich visited Wyoming on assignment and, while there, her partner died.  She decided not to leave.  Her essays are a thoughtful, deep, well-observed look at the life, places, and people of the American West.

First things first – you should know that despite being raised in the country I’m a city girl, happier in canyons of concrete than wide open spaces.

My mother is the exact opposite and would be most at home at a ranch like the one Ehrlich worked on, and Solace has helped me see why.

Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are.

She takes the myth of the cowboy straight on and describes how life on a ranch, mostly alone if not for the animals, molds them.

To be “tough” on a ranch has nothing to do with conquests and displays of power.  More often than not, circumstances – like the colt he’s riding or an unexpected blizzard – are overpowering him.  It’s not toughness but “toughing it out” that counts.  In other words, this macho, cultural artifact the cowboy has become is simply a man who possesses resilience, patience, and an instinct for survival.

The writing is gorgeous, flowing, evocative.  Ehrlich’s love for this unforgiving landscape seeps from the page and while I won’t be moving out West any time soon I finally get the appeal.

The Solace of Open Spaces invites you to inhabit and know a place on its own terms and I’m so glad I did.

Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches by John Hodgman

34802624John Hodgman has written a memoir about his cursed travels through two wildernesses: from the woods of his home in Massachusetts, birthplace of rage, to his exile on the coast of Maine, so-called Vacationland, home to the most painful beaches on Earth

Vacationland is also about Hodgman’s wandering in the metaphoric wilderness of his forties, those years when dudes especially must painfully stop pretending to be the children of bright potential they were and settle into the failing bodies of the wiser, weirder dads that they are.

Other subjects covered include the horror of freshwater clams, the evolutionary purpose of the mustache, which animals to keep as pets and which to kill with traps and poison, and advice on how to react when the people of coastal Maine try to sacrifice you to their strange god.

Short review:

Do you like John Hodgman?  Then you’ll like this book. Go get it!

Longer review:

You’ve probably heard of and like Hodgman already via This American Life, the “I’m a PC” Mac ads, or his podcast Judge John Hodgman.  I was lucky enough to meet him at a book signing years ago and can confirm that he is a stellar human being.  (He signed my book “I know you are not a villain”, so it must be so.)

I am I biased? Sure. But his awesome human-ness is what comes out in this memoir essay collection. And first up is that he recognizes his white, upper middle class privilege and calls himself out throughout the book.

I am grateful to be reminded at how vigilant I need to be about my skin and its thinness and the responsibilities both entail.

The essays range over the course of Hodgman’s life but concentrate on his second act, namely being a middle-aged, once-kinda-famous dad who vacations in Maine. Come for the stories, stay for the amazing writing, humor, and insight.  It’s very Ira Glass-y in that bits of story are followed by pulling back to get a wider view.

We said good-bye to our new friends, who seemed happy to leave.  I do not know where they went in their lives after that, but I have learned to be comfortable with that.

A turn away from his books of fake facts, the essays of Vacationland are funny and earnest and make you glad that there’s a guy like John Hodgman out there, sharing his thoughts with the world.  A must read for Jh fans as well as a starting place for those unfamiliar.

Thanks to Viking and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

25189315Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.

Her eye-opening, candid, and often hilarious story is like going on a journey with your bravest friend to the cemetery at midnight. She demystifies death, leading us behind the black curtain of her unique profession.

Honest and heartfelt, self-deprecating and ironic, Caitlin’s engaging style makes this otherwise taboo topic both approachable and engrossing. Now a licensed mortician with an alternative funeral practice, Caitlin argues that our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead).

Review:

This isn’t the book for everyone, but at the same time, the more you resist the more you should probably read it. (Passes given for the truly squeemish and triggered, of course.)

In this memoir-of-sorts Doughty explores her life-long fascination with death and what it means to have a “good” one. She relates what it’s actually like to work at a crematory, how bodies of all descriptions get to their final resting place, Western culture’s relationship with death and how it’s changed over the centuries, and more.

Doughty speaks honestly about things we’d never admit to being curious about (why don’t we see dead bodies at the hospital?) and things many of us never think about (what happens when a homeless person dies?). Working in medicine I’ve already given thought to my own “good death” but she pushed me a step farther – what would I like to happen after I die? What would donating my body to science entail? What kind of rituals or ceremonies would help my family cope?

I won’t lie, parts of the book made my eyes leak, a ‘wow that’s so beautiful/touching/wrenching’ that hits you (lovingly) in the solar plexus. This is stuff we should all be thinking about and as the author argues, turning a blind eye to death makes for an unhealthy relationship with it.

A hearty recommend for anyone interested by the title, and even those who aren’t.

The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald

31021280When Betty MacDonald married a marine and moved to a small chicken farm on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, she was largely unprepared for the rigors of life in the wild. With no running water, no electricity, a house in need of constant repair, and days that ran from four in the morning to nine at night, the MacDonalds had barely a moment to put their feet up and relax. And then came the children. Yet through every trial and pitfall—through chaos and catastrophe—this indomitable family somehow, mercifully, never lost its sense of humor.

A beloved literary treasure for more than half a century, Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I is a heartwarming and uproarious account of adventure and survival on an American frontier.

Review:

I was excited to find that the author of the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books wrote a memoir about chicken farming in the Pacific Midwest, complete with “The Enduring Classic” blazed on the cover.  But this doesn’t feel like a classic at all, with MacDonald’s sharp wit aimed at people who least deserve the jabs.

She moved to the wilds of Washington with her husband, determined to be the best wife she can by doing whatever makes her husband happy, no questions asked.  Let’s count that as Anger Runneth Over #1 – woman with zero agency.  She hates the chicken farming her husband loves and seems to find no joy in life on the mountain. Sometimes the barbs are funny and telling of how awful she found things.

In my little Death and Food Record book, I, in my prankish way, wrote opposite the date and number of deaths; “Chickenpox-Eggzema and Suicide.” When he checked the records, Bob noted this fun-in-our-work, and unsmiling erased it and neatly wrote, “Not determined.” Men are quite humorless about their own business.

But these moments are few and far between. More often MacDonald lights into her neighbors and people in town, judging them by her city standards of culture and erudition.  Whole passages are written phonetically to exaggerate their manner of speaking and, apparently, the humor.

Charlie wath butchering and I athk him for the thpare ribth becauthe they kilt two pigth and I knowed that the two of them couldn’t eat all them thpare ribth, but that thtingy thkunk thaid, “The reathon I’M BUTCHERING, MR. KETTLE, is becauthe I need the meat,” and I wath tho mad I forgot the egg math I had borried.

Instead of poking fun at a situation she’s grinding people into the dirt, holding them at fault for being different or not being given the same opportunities she has enjoyed.  This closed mindedness and snobbery is Anger Runneth Over #2.

It’s not that MacDonald is incapable of nuance – if she gave other people the consideration she reserved for her grandmother the book would be much more readable.

Gammy was patient, impatient, kind, caustic, witty, sad, wise, foolish, superstitious, religious, prejudiced, and dear.  She was, in short, a grandmother who is, after all, a woman whose inconsistencies have sharpened with use.

Instead we run into Anger Runneth #3, her view and treatment of the Native Americans of the area.  I went into the book knowing that racism of this sort would be an issue and prepared to see the book as of its time, but it’s hateful and awful even for the 1940s.

Little red brothers or not, I didn’t like Indians, and the more I saw of them the more I thought what an excellent thing it was to take that beautiful country away from them.

It hurts me so much to even type that.

There are a couple of chapters that are funny if separated from all the rage-inducing passages but I doubt it’s worth the effort.  Consider The Egg and I a classic you can safely skip.

I Don’t Care if We Never Get Back by Ben Blatt and Eric Brewster

Synopsis:

18668201Ben, a sports analytics wizard, loves baseball. Eric, his best friend, hates it. But when Ben writes an algorithm for the optimal baseball road trip, an impossible dream of every pitch of 30 games in 30 stadiums in 30 days, who will he call on to take shifts behind the wheel, especially when those shifts will include nineteen hours straight from Phoenix to Kansas City? Eric, of course. Will Eric regret it? You might ask, Are Dodger Dogs the same thing as Fenway Franks? As Ben and Eric can now attest, most definitely.

On June 1, 2013, Ben and Eric set out to see America through the bleachers and concession stands of America’s favorite pastime. Along the way, human error and Mother Nature throw their mathematically optimized schedule a few curveballs. A mix-up in Denver turns a planned day off in Las Vegas into a twenty-hour drive. And a summer storm of biblical proportions threatens to make the whole thing logistically impossible, and that’s if they don’t kill each other first.

Review:

A fun look at doing the impossible – seeing a game in each of the 30 major league baseball parks in 30 days.

Like: Ben and Eric own who they are: white guys who just graduated from Harvard with a once in a lifetime shot to do something this crazy. They got a lot of help along the way and everyone is appreciated and thanked in the afterward, down to the police departments that wrote them tickets.

Interesting: I’m not sure what to call this voice… they use “we” but never “I”. It’s Ben thought this and Eric said that. It took a few pages to fall into the groove but I think it was the best way to handle the narrative.

Meh: While most of the numbers and itineraries are neat it did bog down in a couple of places. If you’re a baseball person and therefore have a high tolerance for crazy stats you won’t even notice.

Like: The prose isn’t literary by any stretch, but it’s readable and interesting. It also strikes me as fair and honest, as Ben and Eric are pretty good at pointing out each other’s faults and graceful enough to accept their own (sometimes).

Don’t Like: This feels like it was written right after the trip, before they completely processed all of their experiences. While there are insights, they were pointed out by Eric’s mom and rehashed in the last couple of chapters. I would have loved to see another chapter about life after the trip and how it changed them (or didn’t).

If you’re into baseball or road trips or books that follow crazy self-imposed journeys you’ll enjoy I Don’t Care if We Never Get Back.