Book Review: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Stephen Covey)

Required reading for responsible human beings and those who aspire to be.

Succinctly, this is a handbook to being a successful adult. It’s about finding out who you are, who you want to be, and how to communicate with other people in your life in order to convey respect and ensure that productive personal growth takes place regularly.

The 7 Habits, presented by Mr. Covey:

1. Be Proactive – recognize that although you may not be able to control your current circumstances, you can control how you respond to your current circumstances. If a reader picks this book up and only reads all about this first habit, that chapter alone will be well worth the price paid for the entire book. I especially enjoyed the concept of the circle of influence and the circle of concern. Thinking about our circumstances and what we can and can’t control, working with the circle of influence is where we find power to enact personal change.

2. Begin with the End in Mind – the opening visual imagery of one’s own funeral is a powerful way to establish this particular principle: the goals we want to reach in life won’t happen automatically if we haven’t purposely defined those goals and are not taking active steps to reach them each day. The invitation to develop a personal mission statement in this chapter is challenging, but necessary if the reader wants to actually realize their purpose someday.

3. Put First Things First – once habits one and two have been properly developed, it is time to begin planning on a daily basis and to follow the necessary steps to arrive at the planned destination. This chapter is all about time management and planning at the hourly, daily, and weekly level.

4. Think Win/Win – after establishing a personal foundation in the first 3 habits, this chapter offers insight to daily navigation and how to negotiate honestly and openly with others without compromising the values and goals that you declared to be important. The meat of this chapter is in the discovery that many say “win/win” while they practice another philosophy because they do not truly understand what win/win entails.

5. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood – this habit is the easiest to comprehend and the hardest to put into practice when the heat is up and the chips are down. Our natural tendency is to be defensive when stressed or questioned, but patience and the opportunity for the benefit of a doubt should rule the day. I loved the analogy of the prescription glasses. They may work perfectly for you, but when you offer them to someone else who mentions they are having trouble seeing, they don’t seem to work in exactly the same way for the other person. We have to purpose to see it the other way first; not to give up our position, but to see if there may be a 3rd position that is most beneficial to both parties.

6. Synergize – this chapter is about putting it all together and seeing how success in one habit can enhance success in another area. It’s also about the exponential success that can take place when multiple team members are all working within the seven habits.

7. Sharpen the Saw – this is the most fun part of the book, because it is about taking time for the things in your life that recharge your batteries in four different areas: physical, spiritual, mental, and social/emotional. I think most readers would see strengths in at least one area, but also a weakness in another area. This is good stuff, because it helps you to see where you need the most help for personal growth so that you can plan and focus accordingly.

Overall, a solid must-read book. Although the title is accurate (it’s how to become “Highly Effective”), the entire book is written so practically that anyone who reads this will feel as though the concepts taught within these pages are within their grasp. Attaining the title of “Highly Effective” is not out of reach. The tools for personal growth are all right here. Nothing more is necessary, other than the commitment of the reader, and Mr. Covey makes it doable with the instructions and activities within these pages.

Book Review: Elevation (Stephen King)

A 240-pound man living in the small town of Castle Rock, Maine begins to lose weight but doesn’t lose any mass. He still maintains his gut, his same waist size, and the same muscle mass. The results make for a fascinating (albeit short) read.

What I like most about Stephen King’s books (and I’ve only read a small portion of his library) is his style. I don’t know how best to describe it, other than it just seems natural while reading it. Most of the prose is conversational, which makes for a quick read, even in King’s longer books. The parts in between the conversations are not fluff. As a reader, you get succinct details. Everything you need to know, but nothing extra that just fills the pages and makes you want to put the book down. There are no lulls in the story that only serve to lose the reader. I like that. King’s stories are easy to follow whether reading or listening to the audio versions. Not all books, even the “best sellers,” have that going for them. You get a sense that King respects his readers.

I do wish this story were longer. It felt complete at the end, but because it was a good read, I wanted to keep going.

Book Review: Why We Broke Up (Daniel Handler & Maira Kalman)

This story wouldn’t be the same without the illustrations.

From a writer’s perspective, I really liked the concept because instead of chapters to divide the book, there are several illustrations of objects that had some terminal significance in the eyes of the protagonist, Min during her relationship with Ed, who ultimately breaks her heart.

Those objects served as excellent writing prompts to direct the plot from start to finish. The plot is not original, especially in the young adult genre: Girl meets boy; Boy is really sweet for all of the many days (about 14) of their long-term (short-term) relationship up until he gets what he wanted from the girl; Boy moves on to another girl.

So, while the plot isn’t original, the author finds a new way to tell it. Those objects that the story is written about are the relics of a relationship. A movie ticket stub that led to a memorable first date… two bottle caps that encapsulated a chance encounter at a party… a box of matches that provided a tool to express heated emotions… a roll of film to capture memories that were shortly treasured… a bracelet associated with physical touch… a token that served as a souvenir of a foolish jukebox song… two keys with symbolic meaning at a costume party… and so many other mementos that collectively tell the story of the roller coaster emotions of two high school students and why they ultimately broke up.

I can almost imagine the author, at the outset, collecting some random objects and attempting to build a compelling story around them, and I like the result because it speaks to our sentimentality and the value we place on items that may be materially worthless while simultaneously holding priceless memories of strong feelings; Objects that are only treasured as long as the relationship is untarnished. Throughout the story, Min not only tells her story through those objects, but is also constantly comparing the scenes of her life to the scenes of famous classic black and white movies that she enjoys watching (movies and actors that were apparently made up just for this book but were described so well and realistically that I went to imdb.com to try and look some of them up, to no avail… Which is one more pretty cool thing about this book).

Once the relationship ends, does the disposal of those sentimental objects erase the painful memories? Not necessarily, although it probably serves as an effective way to lessen the sorrow. This story is a reflection of how we typically deal with disappointment in our lives, but are we effective in how we carry that out? I believe the author leaves that up to the reader.

Book Review: The Time Traveler’s Handbook (Johnny Acton, David Goldblatt, James Wyllie)

A different take on the genre of time travel books, this one is non-fiction: it’s actually a history book in disguise, and most of the book is written in future tense.

Delivered under the premise of a handbook from a travel agency, the reader is given the choice of 19 excursions from which to choose. The introduction is a fun read in preparation for what is ahead:

“With our Chronoswoosh (TM) time exchange plasma shuttle technology, we not only offer the most accurate return to the past, but minimal interference with the time-space continuum. No more getting abandoned in the wrong century, no more returning to find you are your great aunt… We really will take you to the right place at the right time, every time.”

With the rich detail available, this book has been well researched and includes descriptions of exactly the type of clothing the time traveler would need to wear in order to blend in to the contemporary society of the destination, as well as warnings about language use. For example, even if the time traveler speaks English, they may not be able to understand the English used during the Peasant’s Revolt in London in 1381. There’s also a full disclosure of the local fare available, some appetizing, but much of it not palatable by modern-day expectations.

Time travelers may choose from destinations such as 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, 1969 Woodstock Festival in New York, 1773 Boston Tea Party, 1989 Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1599 Opening Night of Shakespeare’s Globe, 1974 Rumble in the Jungle (Ali vs. Foreman), a Beatles concert in 1960, The Eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, The Battle of Bull Run in 1861, and many others. There is quite a diverse offering available here, and the reader wouldn’t necessarily have to read it all to glean some value here. These travel packages are set up to allow the “time traveler” to pick and choose where they want to go (or not go) and in which order they would like to go. Anyone who reads this is free to pick and choose and skip any chapters/trips that seem unappealing. I love the concept and the presentation of this collection of events.

Also entertaining are the descriptors of exactly where the time traveler may go on which days during their journeys to the past in order to see the most meaningful events unfolding, without placing themselves in danger of death, accident, or being left behind permanently in the past by missing their specified departure location. I could envision some time travelers intentionally getting lost in order to avoid coming back to their own present-day surroundings.

Overall, this is not a typical time travel book, because there is no opportunity to go back into the past and change history, as is characteristic of that genre. Although the intro and summary to the book are fiction, the meat of the book is not fiction. As such, it makes for a less-exciting and slower read. However, the future tense writing style makes for a better read than the otherwise dry history that would be the customary viewpoint presented from say, a textbook. This is certainly a more entertaining way to learn history, because it seems to bring the past alive.

Book Review: The Freedom Writer’s Diary (Erin Gruwell)

Kids want to be loved.

That’s the review in 5 words or less.

What an inspirational story! A rookie teacher in an inner-city school pours 100% of herself into the lives of her 150 freshman students, and four years later, they are high school graduates with options for college and a determination to change the world that is not unfounded.

This book is a collection of the emotionally charged personal stories of those students who were transformed under the guidance of Ms. G. And though it is not a teaching handbook with detailed lesson plans, it is a template for what works: investing into the lives of students, listening, caring, and being present for them. Many of these students came from one-parent or no-parent homes. Some were homeless. Some were initially involved in gangs. Some were abused. Some abused drugs. Other teachers didn’t want them in their classrooms. They were seen as problems. None were given a chance until they met Ms. G.

She saw them as people who needed help.

She was the teacher who was willing to help them.

Along the way, they were met with resistance. Other teachers harassed Ms. G. She was making them “look bad” because of her methods to reach the students that no one else wanted. She reached her students by teaching them that their teenage struggles to survive were not unlike those of Anne Frank or Zlata Filipović.

The students listened.

They became intrigued, and then they became readers. Their teacher bought them new books from Barnes & Noble, and the kids carried them around the school, proudly, inside the B & N bags, so everyone could see what they had.

They connected with the story of the woman who hid Anne Frank. Ms. G. arranged for a meeting. They connected with the story of a modern-day Anne Frank: Zlata. Ms. G. arranged for that meeting as well.

Then they became writers.

A local philanthropist challenged the students to continue learning and promised personal computers to the most successful. They went to Washington, DC. They won awards. They went to New York. They met Connie Chung. They collected their own writings in a book. They inspired someone to create a movie about their lives and how they became successful in spite of the lack of hope they initially had before they met Ms. G.

Many of them went on to college. Some of them went to college on scholarships.

All of them were better off because of a teacher who believed in them.

Kids want to be loved.

Ms. G. recognized that all of her diverse students had that one thing in common, and that’s how one teacher made a difference in 150 lives, each of whom are now making a difference in countless other lives today.

Book Review: Patsy: The Life and Times of Patsy Cline (Margaret Jones)

This read was just as insightful about the era as it was about the subject, Patsy Cline.

I’ve always enjoyed the music of Patsy Cline, and with her early death at the age of 30 in 1963, I’ve often wondered how many wonderful songs we’ve missed that she never had the opportunity to write and perform. Her career likely would have continued into the late 1960s and through the 1970s and 1980s, mirroring those of her contemporaries, such as Loretta Lynn and George Jones, who are mentioned prominently throughout this book.

I’ve read the biographies of many entertainers, but what surprised me most about this account was how similar Patsy Cline’s lifestyle was to that of other musicians who lived decades after she did. I’ve always had a pristine image of what life was like in the 1950s, and the depictions of Patsy Cline’s life do not fit that image. Nor do the accounts of her peers during that era. They were definitely not of the mold of ‘Leave it to Beaver,’ ‘Father Knows Best,’ or ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ that most people think of when they imagine life in the era of the black and white television days.

Also similar to the biographies of popular recording artists, it was very interesting to read about the process of putting together an album, selecting songs, and choosing musicians to work in the studio and the concert tours. I enjoyed the lyrics that were included, as well as Patsy Cline’s thoughts about her popular songs. She didn’t like her first couple of hits, which were years apart, but others convinced her to record them, seeing what she was unable to see. As I’ve read with other artists, many of them are taken advantage of for years without making any money, even after they’ve had a hit record. Patsy Cline was no exception. She was misled after signing with a record label out of naivety and desperation, and she only escaped the manipulation of her first record company a couple of years before her death. Again, we’ll never know the songs we missed out on because of those wasted years.

There were a few things that stood out from this book that were different than other musical biographies. One was Cline’s premonitions about her death. She confided in friends on more than one occasion that she would not live a very long life. A couple of different times, she communicated her will either in writing or verbally. At one point, she suffered a serious car accident and almost died. Yet even after surviving such a close brush with death, she continued to believe that another accident was inevitable. It was eerie to read the accounts of how close she came to not getting on the plane that would crash and end her life.

Another thing that was odd was how little she was thought of in her hometown of Winchester, Virginia, in spite of her nationwide fame and renown after making multiple hit records. When she was still alive, she came back home to perform a concert of her hit songs, and she was booed loudly. Even decades after her death, the town council voted 11-1 against naming a street after her, citing her reputation as a homewrecker.

Patsy Cline was no saint, but considering the rough childhood and the abusive father that she was presented with, hers is a story of overcoming. The success that she enjoyed in spite of her obstacles was admirable, and the way that she used her fame and fortune to help others that she cared about made her a memorable friend to those who knew her outside of Winchester.

Book Review: All Our Wrong Todays (Elan Mastai)

An okay time travel book for me up until the last part of the story. Then, I got lost.

Before that, it was somewhat interesting to follow the dual timelines of Tom/John. Tom/John is living in the present-day, where he is employed as an alternate chrononaut (time traveler) in his dad’s company. His dad invented the time machine. When the lead chrononaut he is shadowing dies tragically, he eventually ends up traveling back to 1965 to the origin of the device (invented by Lionel Goettreider) that makes time travel possible. He originally goes back to somehow attempt to save the lead chrononaut, but he doesn’t stay long in 1965 and is “boomeranged” back to a present-day alternate reality that is nothing like he left it. In fact, his life is much better when he returns, even though he has messed up this alternate timeline for almost everyone else on the planet.

But he can’t get the original timeline out of his head.

So, he then struggles with guilt over whether he can live at peace with himself in this improved version of his life, knowing that everyone else may be worse off because of it. Eventually, he is compelled to try and fix it again.

Later, when the third and, I think, fourth timelines were introduced and they were all being considered simultaneously within Tom/John/Victor/???’s head, as well as Lionel’s multiple timelines, it was too much for me. I went ahead and finished the book, but I’d checked out long before the last page.

Book Review: In Five Years (Rebecca Serle)

Compelling story that kept me engaged until the last page, although it wasn’t quite what I expected from the synopsis / preview that I read about this book.

The preview hinted at a book that sounded like there might be some time travel involved: “But when she wakes up, she’s suddenly in a different apartment, with a different ring on her finger, and beside a very different man. The television news is on in the background, and she can just make out the scrolling date. It’s the same night—December 15—but 2025, five years in the future.”

Although it was evident early on that this was not a book about time travel, I was still interested in the story and wanted to keep reading. The plot, to that point, made me think of the ABC TV show from a few years ago (2009) called “Flash Forward” starring Sonya Walger. In that show, some of the characters were able to see visions of their future that didn’t make any sense, but eventually, each character fulfilled their visions in very intriguing ways that were identical to what they saw weeks/months before.

The story in this book, “In Five Years,” didn’t turn out to be similar to “Flash Forward” after the initial vision. The protagonist here, Dannie, has just the one vision, and she fights for five years against any path that seems as if it could possibly lead her to fulfilling the vision that she doesn’t want to experience in real life. The reason for her resistance is that the vision sees her with a different man than who she is engaged to in the present-day. In fact, she doesn’t even recognize the man in her vision… initially.

I won’t spoil how she eventually comes to know the man from her vision, and the story makes for a great read overall. Although I’m not a romance reader, (and didn’t realize what I was requesting with this ARC) I found “In Five Years” to be imaginative and original, complete with a couple of unexpected twists. The author is quite creative in putting together a fun story to read. However, the ending, though plausible, was a little weird for me, especially in how the protagonist eventually “finds” true love. I think some of this might be a better fit for a movie, because the chemistry might come off better on the screen. However, if this were a true story, at least one of the characters wouldn’t be okay with how the protagonist eventually finds love.

This ARC was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: If Kennedy Lived (Jeff Greenfield)

81+ac+ZjoqLA lot of this book was over my head and contained much more political minutia than I had expected. Still, it is interesting to think about how easily things could have been different for both John F. Kennedy and the United States of America if, perhaps, it had rained all day in Dallas on November 22, 1963, as the forecasts had originally predicted.

In the highlights of this story, because of the unrelenting rain, President Kennedy’s car had a Plexiglas bubble top that was still shattered by a would-be assassin’s bullet, but because of the layer of protection, Kennedy escapes with his life. Consequently, the growing suspicion into the financial affairs of Lyndon Johnson do not fade away, and he becomes increasingly scrutinized until he finally leaves the vice presidency. Riding a wave of popularity after the failed assassination attempt, Kennedy chooses a new running mate (Stuart Symington) and is re-elected in 1964. Soon after, he chooses not to increase involvement in the war in Vietnam, and the rebellious phase of the late 60s and early 70s never develops in the United States. Nor does a cold war develop. Instead, the country and the world enjoy a time of extended peace and prosperity.

The book ends with Hubert Humphrey winning the 1968 Democratic nomination for President, choosing Al Gore, Sr. as his running mate, and Ronald Reagan winning the Republican nomination for President, choosing Gerald Ford as his running mate. The outcome is not predicted.

The afterword is interesting because the author leaves detailed (and accurate) information about how he chose to craft his speculation of how things progressed in America from 1963-1968, lending a great deal of credibility to this work of fiction.

Book Review: Make Today Count (John Maxwell)

“You really can make today great. The key is to make the most important decisions of your life and then to manage those decisions. Anyone who does that consistently can make today a masterpiece.” – John Maxwell

I first read this book in 2014, and it still resonates in 2020.

In “Make Today Count,” John Maxwell emphasizes the “Daily Dozen,” which is a collection of 12 focus areas that he says are essential for personal success:
1. Attitude
2. Priorities
3. Health
4. Family
5. Thinking
6. Commitment
7. Finances
8. Faith
9. Relationships
10. Generosity
11. Values
12. Growth

Although John Maxwell’s advice is that a person focus on each of these 12 areas (or create your own 10-15 areas) consistently, as a reader, I think that one or more of these may stand out more than others, depending on where that reader is in their life.

For me, in 2020, Attitude and Relationships seem to stand out more. I think Attitude is a given; it is a cornerstone to personal success that cannot be overemphasized. If someone has a rotten attitude, it is manifested in their relationships with others. People are either appalled by or drawn to a person, based on their attitude.

With that in mind, one thing that has seemed to be impressed upon me repeatedly in both my interactions with others and as a bystander in observation of how others interact is this: the way I treat others is a reflection of my character, not the other person’s character. And this truth seems to stand, regardless of what the other person has done, good or bad. And it stands regardless of whether we’re talking about personal or professional relationships.

The most insightful and practical part of the book is the chapter on Relationships, where the author comes close to this same concept with the following advice:
People are insecure… give them confidence.
People want to feel special… sincerely compliment them.
People desire a better tomorrow… show them hope.
People need to be understood… listen to them.
People are selfish… speak to their needs first.
People are emotionally low… encourage them.
People want to be associated with success… help them win.

He goes on to say, “when you understand people, don’t take their shortcomings personally, and help them to succeed, you lay the groundwork for good relationships.”

I feel like if I didn’t get anything else out of this book but just a clear understanding of how to improve my relationships (and to also actually put this into practice), then this book was well worth the time to read and learn.

And yet, Relationships is just 1 of the 12 “daily dozen” from John Maxwell that you will get from this book.

A worthwhile read that can make a difference for you, starting today.