The Rules of Civility

rulesCiv_.gifGeorge Washington, the US’ first President, was known for his stellar character. Richard Brookhiser collected the wisdom Washington hand-copied of rules of behavior. Brookhiser adds background on the rules and how they seem to have been handed down from teachings of 16th century Jesuits and notes on situations when Washington followed this precepts and comments his peers made on Washington’s behavior.

I found the book charming and still useful. I learned about the culture of 18th century America and the first President. On top of that, I saw how holding oneself to high standards builds character. Yeah, that sounds hokey, but I think it’s often true.

Some nuggets:

1. Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.

2. When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body not usually discovered.

3. Show nothing to your friend that may affright him.

4. In the presence of others, sing not to yourself with a humming voice, or drum with your fingers or feet.

5. If you cough, sneeze, sigh or yawn, do it not loud but privately, and speak not in your yawning, but put your handkerchief or hand before your face and turn aside.

6. Sleep not when others speak, sit not when others stand, speak not when you should hold your peace, walk not on when others stop.

7. Put not off your clothes in the presence of others, nor go out of your chamber half dressed.

8. At play and attire, it’s good manners to give place to the last comer, and affect not to speak louder than ordinary.

9. Spit not into the fire, nor stoop low before it; neither put your hands into the flames to warm them, nor set your feet upon the fire, especially if there be meat before it.

10. When you sit down, keep your feet firm and even, without putting one on the other or crossing them.

 

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The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

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The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a cute mystery with with a precocious 11 year old heroine, Flavia de Luce. Set in 1950’s pastoral England, Alan Bradley’s novel is as sweet as can be and at times that sweetness was too much. I listened to the audio book which featured a gifted narrator, but after about 15 minutes not wanting to develop literary diabetes I had to turn it off.

The charming, brilliant Flavia is a chemistry whiz who can’t abide her older sisters. She plans and concocts a poisonous lipstick for her sister who loves wearing make up and focuses on her looks. Flavia is smitten with the Periodic Table and is an expert in chemistry, history and all things esoteric.

When a mysterious stranger is found dead on her family’s estate, her father is arrested for murder and Flavia begins to investigate. Of course, the police get involved, but as implausible as it sounds only Flavia makes any significant discoveries. The inspector’s role in the story is just as a foil to Flavia’s clever thinking. He’s not a bumbler, but I didn’t buy that the police seemed to make no progress on he case.

Bradley stuffed more clever metaphors into a paragraph than any author I’ve ever read. Flavia’s thinking was clever, but someone ought to teacher her to tone it down. No one speaks like this. Not even the most precocious child.

While I did like the mastery in small doses, I found the ending disappointing and Flavia’s character too sweet.

Getting to Yes

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Getting to Yes by Robert Fisher and William Ury completely changed how I look at negotiations. Typically we think of negotiating like haggling at a flea market both sides begin with a false impossible request and they where each other down till they will reach a midpoint.

Getting to Yes opened my eyes to Principled Negotiation which separates the people from the positions and use tried-and-true principles to show the people you’re working with why you want what you want can find solutions the benefit all. So negotiation isn’t a battle of the wills, but we’ll rather a way to look at situations and base decisions on solid principles.

I got the audiobook on CD and played it in my car. I enjoy the narrators deep authoritative voice which reminded me of someone like Charlton Heston. His voice made some of that more humorous negotiation examples hilarious.

The book is methodical and would help anyone whether you’re negotiating a business contract, International peace, a salary, or a car purchase. It has help for people who have harmonious relationships or people dealing with toxic personalities. It’s a book I can see referring back to again and again. I was ready to apply these principles last week, but my supervisor forgot we were going to talk about a job offer that’s been on the table a few weeks. Maybe tomorrow.

Inspector Singh Investigates #1

inspector singh.jpegShamani Flint’s first book in her Inspector Singh Investigates series examines a “Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder.”  The troublesome, overweight, snoring and shrewd Inspector Singh is sent from Singapore to look into the murder of tycoon, Alan Lee. His wife, a Singapore citizen and former model Chelsea Lee is behind bars for this homicide. Singh meets with her and his instinct tells him she didn’t do it.

Of course, the local police don’t take a cotton to an outsider snooping around, When Chelsea’s brother-in-law confesses to the murder, Chelsea and Singh are free to go, you might say, but Singh doesn’t buy this convenient confession and takes some vacation time to investigate.

Along with the murder, readers are treated to a vicarious trip to Kuala Lumpur. I have visited Malaysia a few times and I think Flint added the right spice to the murder mystery sauce here. I read it for a new book club that I’m co-facilitating and the club members enjoyed the story and it’s interplay of Malay, Chinese and to a lesser extent Indian culture. It was a pleasant, quick read that provided plenty to discuss.

The Guest Book

Susan Blake took 10 years to write her novel The Guest Book.

Yikes!

Although the cover of my advanced copy claimed this as the “New Great American Novel” I found the structure of the novel confusing, the characters stereotypes and the plot contrived. I would have abandoned it except I was reading it for a new book club that I’m facilitating.

The story was about a rich WASP family (the term WASP is used in the book itself) that suffers some tragedy early on and then refuse to take in a Jewish boy from Germany during WWII. The patriarch of the three generations shown is in finance and his company invests in a company in Nazi Germany throughout the war.

The family owns an island and big summer home there. The idyllic summer home is an idol. The book shines light on the guilt and bigotry of the family. The chapters jump from era to era and managed to both bore and confuse me.

All the characters seemed similar. One granddaughter had epilepsy and that was the mark for her character. Most characters blended into each other.

I wish I didn’t have to read this whole book, but feel as a book club facilitator I should. The guest book in question isn’t mentioned till the last 85% of the book.

I hope the next book is better.

Leave it to Psmith

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I just finished another hilarious audio book narrated by Jonathon Cecil. Wodehouse’s Leave it to Psmith is a complicated frolic involving Freddie, a rich foolish young man, who tries to get his uncle out of a fix and to get a hefty sum so he can get enough money to buy into a booking scheme. If he only could become a bookie, he can marry his dream girl. All he needs is 1000 pounds. His uncle would help but his parsimonious aunt keeps a careful eye on all the family finances.

Eureka!

Freddie will get someone to steal his aunt’s insured necklace, hand it off to the uncle who’ll in turn submit a claim for the necklace, sell off the real one and give some money to Freddie, some to his needy niece and have some freedom for himself.

Who will take on this ridiculous endeavor?

Enter Psmith. A gentleman who’s fled a dull job for his uncle and has advertised to take on any work. Soon Psmith is posing as an erudite poet and entering the uncle’s country home to figure out how to get the necklace.

The story is great fun and wonderfully read by Cecil.

The Age of Innocence

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My friend Bill and I choose a novel to read and discuss online. This time it’s Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, which I find vexing. Published in 1921, Age of Innocence is a look back at New York society of the late 19th century’s wealthy class. It starts with the main character, Newland Archer a callow, complaining young man, who fancies himself superior to all around him. He takes no serious interest in his work or any endeavor. When Newland is about to announce his engagement to the pretty and docile May Welland, her exotic cousin Countess Ellen Olenska appears fleeing Europe and her aristocratic, boorish, brute of a husband. Soon Newland is captivated.

Most of the story is about Newland’s infatuation with the passionate Ellen, whom he’s willing to desert his young wife May for. Ellen goes back and forth between tempting and repelling Newland.

Much of the book consists of Newland’s thoughts on how awful New York society is. This slice of the upper crust is insulated and vapid and it’s easy for Newland, who doesn’t realize he’s no better, looks down on all around him. He’s cultivated no friendships. Unlike many of his era, he doesn’t strike out on his own creating new ventures or exploring new interests. For the most part he spends his time mentally criticizing May and plotting to find time to spend with Ellen, who under her surface of panache doesn’t seem to offer much substance that’s original or creative. She’s a flibbertigibbet in a Worth gown.

While Welty has a knack for wit and description, she aims at a view of a past society that excludes its finer points, such as charity and inventiveness. I wish she had taken a shot at her own era more directly and that she had included at least a couple characters I could admire. Because it featured so much sniping at tedious, stereotypical characters I found the book a chore to get through.