Again. again and again.

Matt Freese is a retired psychotherapist and in his latest work, he turns the focus towards himself. Putting his life under the lens of examination, he writes with passion and transparency of his journey through life. This book cannot be called a true autobiography but it is certainly autobiographical. In any case, Freese does speak of himself in third person a lot, in his stories.

Almost all of these stories have a theme or backdrop. Some of these are highly nuanced, interesting and will be a takeaway for most readers. Take, for example, the story of Michaelangelo’s Moses and the subsequent essay by Freud on it. The author peels away layers of history, mistruths and linguistic farce to talk through the experiences of his own life.

I also enjoyed the running thread of mental health throughout the book. The author examines questions of the state of mind of a writer who is writing. Does a writer have to be inherently serious? But then again, is seriousness perceived by some as depression, as his housekeeper later reveals her opinions? These and more thought provoking analyses fill the pages of musings.

As an indie work, this book stands on its own, or with Freese’s other prior books. In reading through them all, it is possible to get a sense of the man himself, but also the nature of man. And in that, lies the success of this work.

In Extremis

I’m not normally a reader of biographies. However, this beautiful hardback came highly recommended by a friend. This is the bio of Marie Colvin, an American war correspondent. Colvin grew up in the States and worked in papers in both the US & UK. But most of her reporting was done from the ground, in the middle-east and Asia.

This is a most remarkable book. It’s the sort of life account that reads like fiction, it is so full of fantastical events in Colvin’s life and the array of people she met & interviewed. The author is Lindsay Hislum, Colvin’s friend & colleague and someone who clearly knew her well. I found myself questioning Colvin’s decision making multiple times, what sort of person willingly volunteers themselves to the most dangerous areas of the world? And is the first in line to get on a plane to get on ground – from Palestine to Sri Lanka, Lebanon to Syria.

What struck me while reading the first few chapters about Marie’s childhood, is how ‘regular’ it was. And in some ways, it reminded me of another rebel biography, that of Ed Snowden. Individuals like them are shaped by their regular childhood in surprisingly irregular ways. And in so, they find some deep down need for truth despite the danger to their lives. It is fearless lives led like these that make for the most interesting retellings!

Parts of this book are slower than others, obviously. But such pages are few and far between. For the most part, this is an incredible read and certainly a biography worth reading. What a fascinating woman Marie Colvin was!

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

CW: Child Abuse

I have been meaning to read this book for years. I acquired a copy and finally got round to it. It felt like it would be in a similar frame of reference to my previous read. And I wasn’t wrong! Maya Angelou’s autobiography is powerful, riveting, and devastating all at once.

In the account that spans her childhood and teenage years, she describes, uniquely and fully, what it meant to be a black girl growing up in America in the 1930s. Themes of identity, gender, and race come together in the mind of this young girl, striving to thrive in the world. She and her brother are being raised by their grandmother and at every point in the story, the choices available to them are limited. Limited because the cycle of rasicm and poverty means that doors shut on their faces, the chance of an honest life snatched away.

Particularly hard hitting, is the account of Angelou’s sexual abuse at the hands of her mother’s new partner. It is difficult to read, but at the same time, has to be read. It forms a determining part of her life and her identity, how can it not! And just like the reality of millions of girls & women worldwide, the consequences to bear are always for the abused than the abuser.

Anyway, this is a classic of American literature. And I do highly recommend you read this – it is beautifully written, has some funny interludes and is no wonder so famous!

5 Books for Program Managers

I did a talk at work where I talked about 5 books that made me a better Program Manager. So I thought I would share them here for non-fiction lovers. These are just captioned with the notes I made for myself as talking points!

Work Rules

The importance of building and nurturing an open and transparent culture

Importance of OKRs – of setting and demonstrating that we are making progress

Examples from consultancies, finance, telecom, manufacturing – bringing in the best of lateral thinking

Thanks for the Feedback

All about receiving feedback effectively – personal & professional

What are our triggers, how are we uniquely wired

Turn feedback into actionable items and move forward

How can we give feedback better

Lean In

Find her hugely inspiring

Career is a jungle gym (so true for TPMs) who have a wide variety and diversity of backgrounds

Specifically helpful for women, but also anyone else who is ‘not the norm’

Everyone who wants to be an ally or is raising kids should read it

Stereotypes and how important  they are in shaping our sense of self

Mentors and how important they are in shaping our sense of self

How she negotiated her FB offer, the initial years of hosting important people and her TED talks

But also some special reflections, anecdotes and people from the early days of FB

Zero to One

A lot of work I have done in my career is zero-to-one

Requires being comfortable with ambiguity

When I built and ran my own startup I followed – how to compensate, how to hire, who to hire, how to price. 

Brief Answers to the Big Questions

Zoom out and take a big picture view

Ask the big hard questions when the detail isn’t clear

What is our vision, our north star and why should we care?

How does what I do fit in with the wider society and humanity. 

How can we inspire those around us and those that come after us 

“We never really know where the next great scientific discovery will come from, nor who will make it. Opening up the thrill and wonder of scientific discovery, creating innovative and accessible ways to reach out to the widest young audience possible, greatly increases the chances of finding and inspiring the new Einstein. Wherever she might be.

So remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up. Unleash your imagination. Shape the future.”

Thanks for the Feedback

This isn’t the kind of non-fic that would normally appear on my radar, but I read it for a book club discussion at work (yes, we have those). Written by authors from the Harvard Negotiation Project, this book is about the art (and science) of giving and receiving feedback. The hook is an instant draw-in, as the authors frame the concept of feedback as universal. Every interaction in most relationships, they argue, is a form of feedback. At times, people conflate coaching or evaluation as feedback too, and there’s ways to sift through those.

This is a very practical book. It reads like a manual for situations where we might struggle to receive feedback. Like layers of an onion (with the tears too), it peels back the triggers and causes for it. It provides guardrails for recognising our own behaviours in response to feedback and course-corrections that help absorb the nuggets of truth. What is particularly wonderful though, is that it recognises that not all feedback is helpful, or to be taken at face value. Not all feedback givers are helpful either, sometimes lacking as much in tact as content. Chapters discuss these situations and how to deal with them.

Some points that I took away:

  1. Triggers – this is key to understanding why we react the way we do and how we can separate the feedback from the giver, the situation, or our state of mind. This is particularly useful for those of us who pride ourselves on our high EQ.
  2. Circumstances – so much of how we receive feedback is a result of our upbringing, our circumstances, and how we’re wired.
  3. Disagreements – Even if you understand and clarify the feedback you’re given, you still may disagree with the fundamental point and that’s ok. Also what to do about it.
  4. Gut – Spotting multiple tracks in feedback (coaching/evaluation) is hard because your initial reaction tends to take over. Also, what to do about that voice inside head.’
  5. Giving feedback – If receiving feedback is hard, there is quite a bit the giver can do to be heard. Choose your words carefully.

Ultimately, this is one of those books that I can see myself returning to when I need to. In my current workplace, there is a big culture of giving and receiving frequent feedback. No doubt, someone is bound to point a blind spot to me and I can imagine the techniques I have found in this read will prove useful. I am looking forward to our book club discussion now to see what insights others share!

Permanent Record

There are 3 things that I would like to explore in review of this book.

Edward Snowden book 'Permanent Record' with pothos plant
My pothos was looking particularly nice today

The first is the story.

This book is the autobiography of Edward Snowden, the 20-something man who shot to global fame when he exposed the mass scale surveillance that the US carries out on people through their devices. Every time we look at our phones, log on to a computer, swipe a credit card, we are tracked. And infinitesimally small pieces of information are stored about us. Over time, companies can build a fuller picture of our lives by stitching together this data. When you think of the billions of people and their daily activities, the mind is boggled by the amount of data that is added to data stores across the world every minute. The scale of the ‘privacy problem’ is massive, and leaking it caused the US goverment to start a manhunt for Snowden, who now lives in exile. This is a shared issue that affects all of us and the rules of the game are just being written.

The second is the book.

The book itself is a slow read. There are aspects of it which I found fascinating – like Snowden’s background and the episode about 9/11. It was incredible to read of his time at the CIA and the NSA and the inner workings. But most of all, it was interesting to understand the ethos of the ‘state’ and how we have arrived at mass surveillance being a blase affair. Equally, a number of other bits are slow going. Since the reader already knows what Snowden is going to do, I felt that there was a huge chunk of buildup that I wanted to skim read. When he actually makes the leak public, that’s when his story becomes extraordinary. But between that day and the final intercept in Russia is only a span of a few days, and makes for heady reading.

The final is the man.

It would be amiss to read an autobiography and not form an opinion on the protagonist. I felt that the detail of Snowden’s background added a lot of colour to his final actions. Somehow, it all just made sense, sort of like things do in hindsight. But regardless, it must have taken an immense amount of grit, courage and existentialism to have done what he did with the risks he took. He will live out his entire life in exile, although not alone (thankfully). What a huge sacrifice to make to bring about fundamental shift in thinking, global awareness, and policy changes. I have followed him on Twitter for years and I do truly admire him.

Women Hold up Half the Sky

Only 21 women hold the position of Head of state out of 193 countries. In total, only 60 women have ever held the position worldwide. Data shows consistently that women in leadership positions fare better, build more sustainable societies and are more decisive. And yet, due to societal frameworks, few women are afforded the privilege. Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, is one such woman.

I have been in the same room as her multiple times, but I have met her only twice. It so happened that they were both within a span of three weeks. When I ran into her the second time, she knew exactly who I was, commented on it, and remarked on where we’d met three weeks ago. Coming from a head of state who had met hundreds of people in the interim, I was amazed at her memory recall, her sharpness, and her intelligence. I do not agree with everything that her party stands for, but as a leader, I admire her immensely.

This book collects some of her speeches in office since she has come to power. Their gamut is massive – ranging from climate, to gender equity, to the betterment of remote communities, and the vagaries of politics. There are some political anchors in the book, like the historic SNP win in 2016 and the disastrous Brexit vote. Her commentary on these was nice to reread, since I heard the speeches live when she delivered them.

But most others were delivered in various conferences and fora worldwide. And reading those, as we went through a heatwave, brought to sharp focus the portrait of a lady. Sturgeon speaks honestly, she is intelligent enough to author most of what she talks. As a result, the reader sees everything she stands for, the society she seeks to build, and the principles of state she cares about.

Scotland is not without its problems. It mirrors a lot of the issues felt widely around the western world. But despite that, what it has, is a leader at its helm that genuinely cares about the people she is elected to serve. She does not display hubris, arrogance or the pig-headedness that we have seen so often from male leaders in recent times. She might run a small country, but her thoughts and words span large and global. She is just like the country she represents, whose contributions to the societal fabric of the world is disproportionately large compared to its size. I would recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in wide ranging socio-economic-political issues.

A Friendship in Letters … a review

Last review of the year. I hope you have a fine end to this year, wherever you are reading from.

My first fascination with literary friendships began with the knowledge of one between Tagore and Yeats, two stalwarts of their time. Since then, I have tried to read correspondences between authors where I can. And this book was on my wishlist too. The nice thing about sharing wishlists for Christmas is that one doesn’t know which book one is going to get. And so on Christmas morning, I was delighted with this waiting for me from my friend Cl.

Stevenson and Barrie – both young Scotsmen, alumni of the University of Edinburgh, and writers of novels for children. They struck up an unusual friendship in that they never met in person. Stevenson had moved to Samoa for health reasons, and Barrie never managed to leave his elderly mother to go visit him. And of course, Stevenson died at 44, so there wasn’t enough time.

But this meant that their friendship developed through these letters – 16 of which have been included in this volume by Michael Shaw. In it, they talk about their works, characters, and the lives they were leading. Barrie was enamoured by Stevenson – not only did he borrow names and mannerisms from the latter’s characters; but he also devised ingenious ways in which their characters might be family to one another. He was also effusive in his praise (and his love) for Stevenson’s literary genius.

Their real-life families feature too. Stevenson’s entire household is part of some letters and Barrie sometimes writes a line or two to each, individually. Barrie, in turn, writed about his mother and also his famous cricket team ‘Allahakbarries.’ This, of course, was the team that included literary greats like Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, P. G. Wodehouse, A. A. Milne amongst others.

Reading all of this provides the background to the thinking behind some of my all-time favourite characters in literature. And this is a well-written and beautifully presented work.

The Oak Papers

I recently reviewed this book for TWR, and I wanted to cross-share it here. I really enjoyed this book. So much so, that it made me find my nearest oak tree and sit in its shade for a bit. If you are into nature writing, you will love this book. If you are unfamiliar with nature writing, this is a wonderful book to start with.

My review here: https://theweereview.com/review/james-canton-the-oak-papers/

More of an audiobook person? It’s read on BBC Sounds. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000ldfv

Nina’s Memento Mori … a review

I have been reading Matt Freese’s works for a good few years or so. And I always look forward to delving into his latest work. Freese’s writing is deliberate and honest, it has nothing to prove and I like the essay like forms his chapters take. This latest novella is on a grim subject.

Freese lost his wife of two years a couple of years ago. She suffered greatly in her last days and through this work, Freese tries to reconcile with his memories of her. It reminded me very much of A Year of Magical Thinking, in its tackling of grief head on, and the void the loss of a loved one leaves. And similar to Didion, Freese too does not find much comfort in the younger generation, who are either estranged or indifferent.

Through all his works, the author’s style has become more and more polished. And looking back at his earlier works, it is evident that now, the gel of flashback and present moulds better together. It is a thought provoking read that touches upon many themes – the idea of finding love later on in life, what it means to be married for such little time, and the human bondage of relationships. It is also a reflective book in a sense, as the author freely delves into his past as well as Nina’s.

With the nights drawing in so fast this far north, it is a good time to slow down and reflect. I can’t say this was an easy read, but it was most certainly, a rewarding read. And from the little I could garner of Nina through the pages, I sense that she would deem that a success.