Deep Work–Cal Newport

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This is the second book of Cal Newport’s that I’ve read. The first was “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” which suggested that passion isn’t the best path to job satisfaction and success.

Deep work refers to the kind of work that requires focus and effort. Responding to email is a shallow task, but researching a term paper is deep work, if you are doing it without distractions.

It’s a solid book, although I have limited access to the techniques in it at the moment as I’m staying home with my newborn. I imagine it will be quite some time before I can do as he suggests schedule large blocks of time for distraction free work.

However, the concept is sound. You can’t do groundbreaking work or even really excellent work if you’re checking email every few minutes or getting pinged by your interoffice IM. When I worked at a big technology company I made myself unavailable on IM for a single afternoon and was scolded for it. He anticipates this issue and suggests you speak to your bosses about making yourself unavailable before trying it. And suggests that you could follow the example of some of the people in his book that work before the workday starts for the rest of the company.

There are four rules he outlines to set yourself up for success with deep work:

  1. Work deeply
  2. Embrace boredom
  3. Quit social media
  4. Drain the shallows

I can do some of those things. I deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone, which has helped. I had already deleted the games off my phone that I used to play during the days of enforced bed rest before the baby was born, which helped free up some time.

Side note: I can’t manage to subscribe to Newport’s blog on my RSS feeder–which is just as well, because I’ve deleted that as well and am no longer reading any of my blogs–so I get it via email. This is deeply amusing to me because he spends a significant part of his time on his blog and in the book encouraging people to reduce or eliminate their use of email.

I’m still working my way through the many years of his blog posts, which I had opened and saved to readability but now readability is shutting down so I exported everything to pocket and I read a couple of articles every day.

Obviously I like the “quit social media” rule, and I also like “embrace boredom” although it’s hard for me. I’m working on it. It’s true what he says, that boredom helps shake things loose in your brain.

Draining the shallows means that you should try to focus on the tasks that create the most value in your work. Minimize or eliminate the rest of it. I still work on a freelance basis but out of necessity I have to focus on whatever is most valuable because I have limited time, thanks to a child that seems to believe that a nap should never last longer than 30 minutes, which…no.

I recommend this book for everyone. If I can apply aspects of three of the four rules to improve your work while trying to keep a new human alive, anyone can improve the quality of their work using the principles he outlines.

 

The Hero of Ages–Brandon Sanderson

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This is the final book of the Mistborn trilogy (although not the final book in the series, apparently? FictFact lists several more) and it is, I think, the best of the three.

In the first book we’re introduced to a world where the God lives among them and is cruel. The common people are oppressed and the nobility have among them people with the power to ingest and use metals to activate special abilities (enhanced sight or strength, for example). We meet a group of people hoping to overthrow the Lord Ruler and create a better world.

The overthrow works, although not as planned, and a new government arises. The second book deals with the attempt to set up and modify the new government to make it equitable. It’s harder than you think to change the world.

In this book, we see the world in a state of collapse. The ash from the volcanoes is coming harder and faster, burying the plants and bringing the real risk of starvation everywhere. The mists, which had previously been harmless, now kill some of the people who are exposed to them. The mists are coming earlier in the day and dissipating later, making the window of time where anyone can farm or travel shorter.

The emperor and his wife are trying to bring the rebel cities under the banner of the empire so they can consolidate the population in a more defensible position, while also trying to defeat the koloss armies that are roaming the world. These kolass are not unlike trolls, large and violent and terrifying.

They’re also seeking out the location of hidden storage caverns the Lord Ruler put into place before his death, which contain supplies that can sustain the empire and perhaps a key to destroying the evil force that is trying to end the world.

The end was not as I expected. I really appreciated that he tied together all the strands of plot and background, strands I hadn’t even realized WERE strands, thinking them to just be characters. This was beautifully done. Definitely read the previous two books first, don’t just jump in here.

 

 

Scandal–Amanda Quick

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Amanda Quick is the pen name of Jayne Ann Krentz when she’s writing historical romances. Her books often contain mystery elements as well as romance, but not so much in this one.

I love Amanda Quick books. They’re usually very well done romances. They’re fast reads but you don’t feel cheated at the end. This one, Scandal, is one of my perennial favorites, and one that I come back to read often when I’m feeling stressed or just burned out on more serious reading material.

In this book, the romance is between Emily Faringdon and Simon Traherne, the Earl of Blade. It is not an auspicious pairing. He seeks her out and seduces her gradually over a series of high-minded letters discussing their (not actually) mutual interest in romantic poetry. She’s innocent, despite an unfortunate scandal in her past where she ran away to marry the local lord, and was not retrieved until they had spent a night unchaperoned at an inn. Nothing happened, of course, these books do hold quite firm to their era’s feelings about the chastity of the heroines, but she’s ruined for society all the same. Regardless, in her innocence she falls in love with the dashing Simon via letters.

She is, of course, disappointed when he arrives on her doorstep as an earl, which puts him quite out of the matrimonial reach of someone with a past. Of course, he doesn’t care and is perfectly willing to take her as she is and turn her into a proper countess. Not out of love for her, but as part of an elaborate revenge scheme he’s running.

As a child, his father lost everything to her father. His father handled it by killing himself in the study. By marrying her, he gets the house and lands back, but also gets to remove all the financial stability from her father and brothers, because as an inveterate gambler, her father ran through the money many years ago and only Emily’s careful and prudent investments are keeping them afloat. Hence, the plan is: marry Emily and regain the house and lands as a dowry, and then keep her from replenishing the funds and watch her father and brother slide into financial and social ruin.

After the wedding, they move to London where Emily becomes popular and fashionable, until tragedy strikes in the guise of the threat of her scandal coming back to haunt her.

Obviously, it’s a romance and everything works out in the end. It’s a fun, entertaining read. The sex scenes are fairly explicit, so if that is not your taste, perhaps steer clear.

 

The Power of Less-Leo Babauta

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This is a sweet and simple small book.

This book is a collection of the core beliefs that Leo has laid out on his blog over the years. I love his blog (Zen Habits) and his posts are always very clean and clear. The book is no different.

The basic concept of the book and the blog is that you should be paring your life down to a minimum to find happiness and improve your life.

There’s a certain inescapable logic to this concept. The main source of stress in many of our lives is being chronically overscheduled. If you have ten minutes to spare during the day, you probably do what I do and think, what can I be doing with this time? What to-do items can I cross off?

We’re always playing catch-up. Even when we’re ahead we feel behind.

If you follow his plan, which at its core involves cutting back on your commitments to allow you to focus on what really matters, you should find that you have more time, less stress, and are able to get more things done.

One of the things he specifically calls out is something I have struggled with for years and only now am starting to change. I am always impatient about my personal growth and my changes and I want everything fixed right now.

For example, I’m starting a new diet plan as recommended by my doctor (Sugar Busters, FYI) and the old Cecile would have tried to implement all the changes at once and that would have inevitably led to crisis and suffering. The new Cecile is making one change a week. It may take 6 weeks to make all the changes and have the diet completely switched over to the new version of eating, but it’s likely to stick and I’m less likely to suffer in the process.

This is the process he advocates for making change in your life. Focus on one habit at a time, and the smallest possible iteration of that habit. If you think you can commit to 30 minutes of exercise a day, commit to ten minutes. If, like me, you think, pshaw, I can totally eat like that all day, maybe instead just change out your breakfasts for a while and see how you do.

He spends the first few chapters laying out the theory of minimalism and how it can apply to your life and then the rest of the book is a chapter by chapter guide to addressing specific areas of your life that may need to be altered for optimal peace and performance in your life.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and need help, this book and/or his blog are a good place to look for help.

Side note: I was reading a library copy and at some point he wrote the phrase “honing in” which is, of course, a perfectly accurate phrase. And someone had the chutzpah to take a PEN, not a pencil, but a permanent pen, and cross out “honing” and write in “homing.” I cannot imagine the confidence required to make that change in a library copy of a book without even looking up the word you’re crossing out to see if maybe you just don’t know that word. Amazing.

 

 

Unnatural Causes–PD James

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This was such a good book. They made a movie of it year ago (they’ve made movies of most of this author’s books) and my mother-in-law recommended that I see it but apparently there is literally not any way for me to do that. It’s not streamable on any s ervice and it’s not available as a disc from Netflix. Unless and until they decide to make it available I’m on my own with the book version.

Which was, of course, excellent. There’s a reason why PD James is a well known master of the genre. In this book, Inspector Dalgliesh goes to visit his aunt in the country. It’s a small area that’s a sort of an enclave for writers of various kinds. The mystery writer has gone missing. The locals aren’t sure if it’s a stunt–he likes to test out ideas for his mysteries using himself–or if there’s something really wrong. Until the local police come by to say that they’ve found his body, the exact way that one of the other authors had suggested he kill someone for his next mystery.

It was, clearly, one of them. It could be his half-brother who was looking for the inheritance. It could be his wife’s former lover. It could be the man who blamed him for the cruel murder of his beloved cat. It could be he romance author whose advances he had spurned. He was not, as it turns out, a very popular man in that area.

The autopsy report comes back and it appears as though, the marks of violence on his body notwithstanding, it wasn’t a murder after all. Rather, it was a natural death. He had a weak heart and it just gave out.

Of course, that’s awfully convenient timing for his brother, since he was planning to change his will and leave his brother nothing.

Dalgliesh thinks he knows how murder could be made to look like a natural death. And after there’s another death–not even remotely natural–he’s even more sure.

These books are so clean. They’re short but efficient, elegantly done.