Hearing the President Elect of Toastmasters speak…in person

Does seeing the President Elect of Toastmasters International speak sound interesting to you? What if I said that the leader of an organization of more than 345,000 people in 142 countries was coming to speak? Might you listen to that?

Would you want to see this gentleman speaker from the island country of Sri Lanka? What if I mentioned that this man would speak about how his country gained independence from Great Britain after World War II? Perhaps he will talk about how Sri Lanka recently freed itself of the ugliness of a 30-year Civil War in less than ten years ago. Would hearing about his experiences surviving the Indian Ocean tsunami and earthquake of 2012 interest you?

President Elect of TM 3

Today, I get to hear Balraj Arunasalam, Distinguished Toastmaster and president of an organization serving almost 350,000 others and me speak in my community about leadership, communication, service, and possibly some of the life experiences that formed his passion for all three of those interests.

President Elect of TM 2

Today’s events bring Mr. Arunaslam from Sri Lanka to my midwestern US community. For a volunteer organization in 142 countries, you can imagine that visiting us is a significant event. In addition to a keynote speech of more than an hour, Mr. Arunasalam will perform another hour of education for our club. Other educational events will be included in the day. A minting of Distinguished Toastmasters occurs today, as does a pair of contests for an area serving more than 100 of the over 15,000 clubs in the larger Toastmasters organization.

As a person that has spoken about Toastmasters International before, today is an exciting day.

Matt – Saturday, April 29, 2017

Luke Dittrich explores chilling questions of moral ambiguity in his book Patient H.M.

Luke Dittrich explores chilling questions of moral ambiguity in his book Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets. As revealed in the biography of Dittrich by Penguin Random House, Patient H.M. largely tells the “true story of Henry Molaison, an amnesic who became the most studied human research subject ever.”

The book extends the exposition into Dittrich‘s grandfather, Dr. William Scoville. The book delves into much of the history of “psycho-surgeries” (read lobotomies) that Scoville and Walter Jackson Freeman II promoted widely and spread with enthusiasm through the 1940s and some of the 1950s. The book Patient H.M. shares how Molaison was lobotomized by Scoville as a “culmination of a long period of human experimentation that…[Dr. William Scoville]…and other leading doctors and researchers had been conducting in hospitals and asylums around the country.” This August 9, 2016 New York Times article is the source of that quote.

Dittrich‘s book explains that Scoville was in part motivated to find a cure for his first wife; Scoville’s wife at this point (there were two) was Dittrich’s biological grandmother. The book confirms that Scoville performed surgery on Molaison, most likely the wife that would later divorce him, and an estimate of thousands of other patients as well. That this was done with the ostensible support of the American medical establishment, even after the legal and ethical condemnations to human experimentation in Nuremburg following World War II, shocks me. See this Doctor’s Trial link for more details. Patient H.M. explores this subject in enough detail that the reader is left to struggle with the ethical mortification imbued in Dittrich’s exploration.

The book goes into some of the history Dr. Suzanne Corkin of MIT, who studied Henry Molaison as a patient for more than 50-years. (Understand that Molaison underwent the lobotomy as an epilepsy patient in his 20s, and lived into his 70s). It was through much of Corkin’s research that awareness of the way memory works in the human mind became known. Dittrich asks some pointed questions about the raw data underpinning Corkin’s research, what she had to gain from information she kept or did not, and the ownership of Molaison’s brain (and the work product governing it) after Molaison’s death.

Patient H.M. is described in this Amazon book listing as a “biography, memoir, and science journalism” book, which is where it aims and largely lands. The storytelling does demand a certain degree of focus from the reader. Many threads of the narrative tend to get explored for periods of time, dropped, and then reappear. I’ve seen commentary from neuroscientists that indicate some of Dittrich’s knowledge is lacking, though the level of information worked for my tastes as a person not trained in medical science.

I came away with more insight into memory and the different ways that it works. The larger stories of Molaison, Scoville, neuroscience in the 20th century, and the meaning this had to Dittrich‘s family, fascinated me. The ethical questions around informed consent and the lines between the research and practice in medicine, trouble me. Upon finishing Patient H.M., my interest in a deeper dive on that last subject.

I would read this book again; I recommend that others read it. My rating is 3.5-stars out of 5, mostly owing to my interest in the subject matter coupled with the author not having taken a firmer stand about his own personal feelings surrounding the morality of his grandfather’s actions.

Matt – Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day delivers quiet despair of an English way

Kazuo Ishiguro‘s The Remains of the Day delivers quiet despair of an English way. The full effect was subtly delivered through demonstration, seeing truths the central players in some ways denied to themselves, and the role of place or station in stratifying the professional and personal experiences of dignity. The story culminates in some long overdue self-introspection, the many layers of a faded or lost glory, of yesterday.

The narrative and expressions of the butler James Stevens ostensibly took into account his professional perspective of the butler profession in England as Stevens looks back on his career, and the fate of England, in a past that takes place against the backdrops of fascism, two world wars, and an unrealized love between Stevens and the housekeeper known throughout much of this story as Miss Sarah Kenton.

For an American audience familiar with the novel made movie Forrest Gump, The Remains of the Day follows along with an unreliable narrator that really misses much of the significance of the life around him. Stevens, as Ishiguro’s sad foil in this reality. The questions for Stevens, and Lord Darlington in the service of England, and for England, France, Germany, and to a lesser extent America within the fate of Europe, would include answering questions like these:

What is dignity? What is greatness? How do you define your purpose? What are the proper roles of nobility, compassion, and love in the emerging norms of society? To a certain extent, how do you come to grips with these after realizing that you’ve lost your chance to stake your claim on these? How do you then move on?

The telling of these questions were beautifully taken in The Remains of the Day. I personally felt more heartbreak for Mr. Stevens, Miss Kenton, the house servants separated owing to religious bigotry, and Mr. James Stevens’ father more than I felt these for Lord Darlington, the doctor in the village where the sedan was without gas for an evening, or the colleagues of Lord Darlington that took the butler Stevens to task that day.

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Many would find the story telling slow. Others still would find the unreliable narrator unpleasant,  off-putting, and lacking in self awareness. That there is a redemption, an awakening of sorts, for the narrator at the resolution is the payoff for those with the patience to persevere so worth it.

My overall rating of this novel is 4-stars out of 5. While difficult for an American audience, I ultimately fell for The Remains of the Day. Why? Kazuo Ishiguro‘s The Remains of the Day delivers quiet despair of an English way.

Matt – Sunday, February 26, 2017

Elie Wiesel’s “Night” is psychologically graphic and necessary

Elie Wiesel’s Night was an emotionally difficult book to read. The psychological torture of Wiesel’s experience, and so many others like him that had it as bad or worse (not sure what might be worse … American slavery seems at least similar in context and cruelty). That this happened during the lifetime of people I grew up loving brings this particular account and atrocity closer to home; that is likely about anchoring.

The legitimate nightmare and anguish of Elie Wiesel’s experience is psychologically graphic and horrifying. Descriptions including psychologically graphic and horrifying make this book both a necessary and compelling reading. It’s a bit disappointing that my seventh-grade class had us read Seth McEvoy’s Batteries Not Included. This isn’t to diminish McEvoy’s effort; my point is that seventh grade seems like a reasonable time to expose children to questions involving historical and emotional literacy.

For illuminating something for scrutiny that needs to be seen, this book earns 4.5-stars. That the brutality indicated by Wiesel in Night occurred really spells out the crime of what Erik Larson wrote about in his book In the Garden of Beasts.

Matt – Monday, February 6, 2017

Positive feedback for Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

In In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, Erik Larson recounts the career of the American Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, particularly the years 1933 to 1937 when he and his family, including his daughter Martha, lived in Berlin. The book draws out the tension and intrigue of place and period well, including the romances of Martha.

Similar in appeal to the writing of Michael Lewis (see my recent review of The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds), Larson focused on individual people in drawing out a bigger sense of the core subject matter. Unlike Lewis’ accomplishments that lacked a sense of place but had a clear sense of people, In the Garden of Beasts succeeded on both accounts. Place and people were seen in full color in their humanity.

William Dodd earned his Ph.D. in Leipzig many, many years in advance of his ambassadorship. While Dodd clearly hoped to influence Germany’s new Nazi government to take a comparatively more moderate path than it did, the truth is that he saw firsthand persecution of Jews during his stay; he took no effective steps to foment opposition to that persecution during his stay. Some have argued that Dodd was a bit too fond of his youthful memories from Leipzig, which in turn played a hand in his inability to see clear warning signs of impending peril earlier.

Martha, separated from her husband and in the process of divorce, became caught up in the glamor and excitement of Berlin’s social scene. Her romantic affairs were front and center, including a relationship with Soviet attaché and secret agent Boris Vinogradov. She defended the Soviet regime to her skeptical friends. After William Dodd returned to America and took ill with the condition that would take his life early during World War Two, it was Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels who would use this and other romantic endeavors by Martha to attack the service of her father.

The assessments of Dodd’s effectiveness during the build-up of the Nazi war machine are largely poor. Larson takes largely this view in sharing this story and level-setting early on that Dodd was no hero in the larger affairs. U.S. Consul to Berlin alongside Dodd seeks to take some of the sting out of the valid criticism leveled at the former ambassador; that he is compared unfavorably to similar ambassadors to Germany from France and England, while not explicitly stated by Larson, is clearly implied by the tone of this book.

In demonstrating the feel and time of Berlin from 1933 to 1937 so well, my sense is that Larson did well to demonstrate how basically no one believed that Adolf Hitler would last long as a German leader. The relative ease with which he gained that leadership and reformed the form of Germany’s government with the tacit approval of the German populace is skillfully done. That the first maybe forty percent of the book is used to lay the groundwork of a very human telling to one family’s perspective on the Nazi buildup may be off putting for some readers. My recommendation is to stick with the book.

My recommendation is to read this book; I further feel that readers under the age of 30, especially if not married or not parents, would be less inclined to enjoy this book than some one that fits one or both descriptions. My rating is 4-stars out of five.

Matt – Thursday, January 12, 2017

Remembering the Scoop of the Century

The celebration of her 105-years on planet Earth last October would be plenty of reason to have taken note of British journalist Clare Hollingsworth. The BBC informed the world today that Hollingsworth, the war correspondent who broke the news that Nazi Germany had invaded Poland to start World War II, passed away today in Hong Kong.

Per the BBC report, Hollingsworth’s telling in The Daily Telegraph first had it that “1,000 tanks massed on Polish border. Ten divisions reported ready for swift strike.” When Germany invaded three days later, Hollingsworth added the second half of her scoop that, for the significance within the course of human affairs, was not hyperbole in being called “the scoop of the century.”

daily-telegraph

Hollingsworth continued to report from Poland during the second Great War of the 20th century, and later reported from Hungary, Turkey, Greece, and Egypt. Further reporting from the Middle East only added to her reputation, which led to an interview with the Shah of Iran. It is reported that the BBC recognized that Hollingsworth’s “depth of technical, tactical and strategic insight set her apart” as a war correspondent.

Eyewitnesses to history from the 1930s are growing scarcer and scarcer. Books like Anthony Doerr’s fictional All the Light We Cannot See, as discussed on this blog, can help us remember the feelings and history of the past.

https://mattlynndigital.wordpress.com/2016/12/20/the-year-in-reading-2016-part-1-five-favorites/

While I am thankful for that connection to the past as presented by Doerr, and others, it is hard not to feel like a more tangible connection was lost today.

Matt – Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Year in Reading 2016 Part 1 – Five Favorites

As we approach the end of 2016, it seemed fitting to follow the lead of New York Times Books (@nytimesbooks on Twitter) from December 20th and share my reading from the year. Five of my favorites for this year are included below. Maybe you found something that you can enjoy?

  • “Travels with Charley: In Search of America” by John Steinbeck on 7/22/16 – 4/5 stars

Travels with Charley strikes me as a semi-fictional travelogue and stream-of-consciousness tale of a style not unlike that of Jack Kerouac. The book is definitely of the Kerouac canon, though the depth of the contemplation is of a more mature nature than that of Kerouac. The two men were definitely at a different point in life as they wrote. Besides this, the racial discussion and commentary in the last roughly twenty percent of this book leaves the depth that Kerouac offers well in the rear view. I mean this more as praise for Steinbeck than as critique of Kerouac, though both meanings are intended.

Steinbeck exposes things of himself and his times in this book, which it frames a narrative of sectional “American character through sightseeing in 1960.” You get a view of people in Maine and Texas, as two examples. You sense the immutability of border crossings and self-importance. Lodgings moving from a motel feel with something close to personal connection to hotels with less interaction comes through at times.

The book offers this from a 60-something in 1960 compared to his view of America as seen with the vision of someone with an insight into the America of the 1930s (dust bowl America) or 1910 (northern California). A comparison of the worlds of travel, at least in terms of how the highway system and the character of travel, held more through the first half of the narrative, yet it does reemerge again later.

I enjoyed this tale more from an aesthetic quality of how Steinbeck saw, felt, and described the places, feelings, and quality of traveling. It was an interesting experience to feel this drive like a bachelor with his poodle. That Steinbeck traveled without his wife, and that she allowed this, in a few different ways really surprised and shocked me. Thinking beyond the immediacy of his health (which apparently was not good when these travels occurred), I personally am not at a place where I want to travel without my wife. I cannot imagine what would prompt me to consider a prolonged trip of such a character.

All this is part of the mystery, I think. I give this four stars for the enjoyment of seeing an astute, dry, if not curmudgeonly older man share one last experience of our country from a time before the Beatles made their name in America.

  • “Dandelion Wine” by Ray Bradbury on 8/04/16 – 5/5 stars.

As was said of Dandelion Wine and its writer, “[Ray] Bradbury is a lovely writer, and he pulls [the reader] into this mythical summer of 12 year old Douglas. Through his eyes the ordinary becomes extraordinary.”

The language is poetic and draws a picture few others I’ve read have. The story is sentimental, romantic, boyish. The thoughts and feelings and perceptions are those of a 12-year-old sensitive boy. The themes meander through technology not replacing the need for human interaction; fear and acceptance; old teaching young; experiencing fear and accepting it; contemplating the meaning of life, death, and mortality; and most certainly summer. The central metaphor for summer is masterfully executed.

While lacking the true social scope you’d get in Mark Twain, I would place this book right there in quality. The time period (the year 1928) gives a more naive waxing and poetry than Stephen King’s Stand By Me, for example; the language and imagery of Ray Bradbury is in a different class than King’s work.

I grant five stars for being sentimental though fantastically poetic and compelling; the painting of an engaging and nostalgic word picture for my imagination merits my recommendation.

  • “The Given Day” by Dennis Lehane on 8/28/16 – 3.75/5 stars.

The Given Day proved to be an intriguingly written with realism to the facts that I had for the historical personalities fictionalized within this book. Dennis Lehane did a good job of offering tension with the typical central component of police subject matter. The political intrigue worked, though I didn’t walk away with a sense that the story told “was better than it had to be.” Overall, the tension and character definition were great. The characters had depth, and there was some growth within them…however, I found myself wanting more of that.

That the story didn’t “work out well” for some central, good characters saved the overall story for me. The interplay between stories speaks well to the planning.

Overall about 3.75-stars.

  • “The Old Curiosity Shop” by Charles Dickens on 12/02/16 – 4.5/5 stars.

A tale of richly drawn character and characters, The Old Curiosity Shop tells a truly heart wrenching and sad story of a time and place of abject poverty for Nell, her grandfather, and a prodigious cast of characters that share in that poverty, those that try to help yet fail, or finally others that aim to make it worse by a downright despicable sense for abusing the downtrodden.

John Irving, the writer of The Cider House Rules, once said in a television interview that he writes characters that he loves, and then does the worst thing to them that he can think of. Charles Dickens showed us here, in “The Old Curiosity Shop,” that he could have invented this notion. Dickens certainly mastered this (at least from the perspective as reader feeling for characters). Dickens made me love his characters. You’ll smile in the face of the misery.

My one primary exception to the “love Dickens’ characters” concept comes into play with the central antagonist, Quilp. If you managed to love Quilp, you frankly have a better soul than do I. I am not ready to love this character. The self-loathing truth for me is that Quilp’s outcome is one of Dickens’ central masterpieces in the notion of go on “smiling in the face of misery.”

4.5-stars out of five.

  • “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr on 12/12/16 – 3.5/5 stars.

I think I was more okay than others with the pace of the book, though I appreciate that folks wanted less background and more action from earlier in the book. The period where Marie and Werner interact was too spare, in my opinion. There is a good point to be raised that a book about Nazi Germany and the war without a compelling angle for doing so is strong.

Volkheimer was perhaps the one character that I found most relatable. 3.5 stars out of five.

 

Matt – Tuesday, December 20, 2016