July 11, 2013

Why I Like Twitter

So I have figured out why I liked Twitter.

Deep down - regardless of my major or internship position or career goals - I am a writer. When I experience something, my first thought is how I can tell the world about it. How can I portray a rich, incredible moment in something as literally black and white as words? I love the challenge, and I always hope to find the right way of saying something so that it strikes a chord with whoever may be reading.

But you see, these moments always seem to occur at the most inconvenient times. I'm not just talking about the ones when I'm in the shower or driving - where I literally can't record my thoughts. I'm also talking about when I'm sitting in a meeting or a class, standing in the grocery store check out line, out to coffee with a friend. That's where Twitter comes in. In 140 characters I can at least wrangle my sentiment into something legible and sharable. Sometimes it results in a gross oversimplification of a situation, but sometimes it is a beautiful challenge of finding just the right, succinct words to get my point across. It allows me to be a writer (albeit limited).

But I do love writing - in the longer form sense. And in that way, I hope to write more. Both here and for my technology blog. So wish me luck. And keep me honest!

July 1, 2013

Book Review: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

I really wish I could read more often and this summer would like to read at least 5 novels. I've finished two and started a third, so I'd say I'm on track.
The one I read first, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson, was absolutely delightful. I don't even remember where I stumbled upon the recommendation - it may have been a blog, Pinterest, or simply Amazon. Either way, I'm glad I did. I would recommend the book highly to just about anyone.
As a quick summary, the novel follows the title character, Major Pettigrew, through his journeys as an old man. It felt somewhat of a coming of age story, but at a very different point in life. He is a stand-up, respectable, thoughtful old man with the rich traditions and standards of the British army. He lives in an adorable small town in the English countryside where he lives a proper and amiable life after his wife and brother have passed away. The Major must come to terms with what he considers to be his son's appalling lack of manners, civility, and respect for tradition. He also reaches a point that he must find within himself his own values and how they fit into a world that is so different from when he first transitioned to adulthood. Charming and sagacious, Major Pettigrew might be one of my new favorite literary characters. He is friendly, but unapologetic, in a world of people-pleasers with noodles for backbones. He is also an introvert, not needing a whole lot and thoroughly enjoying his books, tea, and view of the countryside. What I really like though, is the fact that he can be both traditional and poised without being cynical or bigoted. Throughout the book, he has moments of heart-wrenching frustration at the world, and in other moments, clarity about what has changed and how he must follow suit. There was so much chance of the Major coming off as crotchety and begrudging, but he is open-minded and logical in a way that compliments his commitment to what he knows from his earlier years. His outlook is  infectious and endearing - I could listen to his commentary on life for many more precious pages than are contained in this novel.
I would love to share a few of my favorite quotations from the book. Simonson writes with a tone of simple and observant truth. She finds a way to make comments about people without making judgments, observations about shortcomings without being condescending. It's thoughtful and meaningful without being heavy. She truly is talented.
Part of what makes the Major charming is his internal observations of others. A few of my favorites are:
"The Major marveled anew at the way so many people were willing to spend time and energy on the adverse judgment of others." (page 155). This theme runs throughout the book in a powerful, powerful way.
"Such an awful fragility of love, he thought, that plans are made and broken and remade in these gaps between rational behavior" (page 291). I believe Shakespeare would approve of this line.
"It was all unfamiliar and therefore very taxing" (page 305). From one introvert to another, I hear you, Major!
Just as (if not more) powerful that these internal thoughts are the Major's interactions with other characters. He has a few strong and meaningful relationships, making up the fabric of the story, as he finds out more and more about cultural and generational gaps and how his mindset is not always popular or fitting - with either crowd.
In a scene when Major Pettigrew is interacting with a young, single mother who has a tough skin and abrasive (yet somehow endearing) demeanor, they have a revealing conversation about the generational gap regarding respect (among other things). At one point, the Major says,
"…in my own case, I believe there is a great deal too much mutual  confession going on today, as if sharing one's  problems somehow makes them go away. All it really does, of course, is increase the number of people who have to worry about a particular issue… Personally, I have never sought to burden other people with my life history and I have no intention of meddling in theirs."
Noreen counters with, "But you're making judgments about people all the time - and if you don't know the whole story -" The Major interrupts with,
"My dear young woman, we are complete strangers, are we not? Of course we will make shallow and quite possibly erroneous judgments about each other… But we have no right to demand more of each other do we? I'm sure your life is very complicated, but I'm equally sure that I have no incentive to give it any thought and you have no right to demand it of me."
She responds to this by saying, "I think everyone has the right to be shown respect." The Major shakes his head and replies, "Ah well, there you go. Young people are always demanding respect instead of trying to earn it. In my day, respect was something to strive for. Something to be given, not taken." (page 150).
The scenes when the Major interacts with his son can be the most difficult in the novel. Their relationship is stilted and the Major struggles to see Roger's approach to life as admirable. At one point, he is attempting to scold his son for his poor judge of character in business partners and Roger cheekily counters by saying, "Oh, it's simple pragmatism, Dad. It's called the real world. If we refused to do business with the morally questionable, the deal volume would drop in half and the good guys like us would end up poor. Then where would we all be?" To which the Major suggests, "On a nice spit of land known as the moral high ground?" (page 175).
There are light moments too, where the Major's outlook brings such logical and  clear answers to questions that you can't help but smile. In response to a comment on relationships, the Major states, "The human race is all the same when it comes to romantic relations. A startling absence of impulse control combined with complete myopia" (page 181). Well said, Major, well said.
The Major's conversation topics vary impressively, and touch all the corners of the reader's heart and thoughts. At one point in the story, he is with a new friend Mrs. Ali. Looking out over the ocean from the tops of magnificent cliffs of England, he says, "… there is something about the edge of the land that does make one feel closer to God. A sobering sense of one's own smallness, I think" (page 193).
Occasionally, the Major made me smile with deprecating, hysterical truths: "… Philosophical rigidity is usually combined with a complete lack of education or real-world experience, and is often augmented with strange haircuts and an aversion to bathing." He isn't wrong, and never means it in a rude way. I laughed out loud more than once while reading this book.
Something about the Major that makes him so likeable is that he doesn't remove himself from reproach. In a conversation with his friend Grace he notes, "It's so much easier to tell other people how to do their job than fix one's own shortcomings, isn't it?" (page 288).
I have many more highlighted passages, but I'll end on one of the best. The Major - exasperated, desperate, and confused - goes off on Roger about what he considers to be love. In a very powerful turning point he says,
"Unlike you, who must do a cost-benefit analysis of every human interaction, I have no idea what I hope to accomplish. I only know that I must try to see her. That's what love is about, Roger. It's when a woman drives all lucid thought from your head; when you are unable to contrive romantic stratagems, and the usual manipulations fail you; when all your carefully laid plans have no meaning and all you can do is stand mute in her presence. You hope she takes pity on you and drops a few words of kindness into the vacuum of your mind" (page 298).
While that collection of quotation covers a lot of ground, I cannot communicate the simple power and endearing nature of this novel without typing out the entire book. I highly recommend it. It has a place in my top five books, and I hope to enjoy it again someday.