Tuesday, July 31, 2007

It Was a Dark and Stormy Contest

Once again, the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest has crowned a new ... er ... winner. In case you're too strong a writer to wonder about this, the Bulwer-Lytton is the Razzie Award of writing, the Harvard Lampoon of literary hackery, the ... oh, you get the idea.

It starts from the premise that "It was a dark and stormy night..." may just be the worst line ever written to begin a novel. Each year, aspiring literary spider monkeys (who like to toss around a bit of fecal matter) send out into the world their worst efforts at the opening line of a novel. (Apparently, you can make this shit up.)

No, I did not enter the contest.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Summer Reading

My wife and I are going away tomorrow. She'll be working, and I'll sort of be on vacation for a few days. So, midway through my first Harry Potter book, I'm not sure what else to bring along to read. I'll probably be almost finished with Sorcerer's Stone by the time we land in Florida, so I have to bring another novel or nonfiction work. But I'm also planning to work on a project that has an August 10 deadline. I've got a few hours yet to decide what my other book will be. What would you decide?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Taking Philanthropy Seriously, edited by William Damon and Susan Verducci

This review, which I wrote, was originally published at another site. If you want the link to the original, please leave a comment below and I will contact you directly.

For a 2005 article in Germany's Der Spiegel, a Kenyan economist was interviewed about the effects of Western development policy in Africa. Before the interviewer could finish his first question, about increased aid to countries on the continent, the economist interrupted, "For God's sake, please just stop. [Aid for the purpose of eliminating hunger and poverty] has been damaging our continent for the past forty years. If the industrial nations really want to help the Africans, they should finally terminate this awful aid."

While such a statement might shock the typical philanthropist, whose intentions are almost always benign, if not noble, it probably wouldn't surprise William Damon and Susan Verducci. In Taking Philanthropy Seriously: Beyond Noble Intentions to Responsible Giving, Damon, a professor of education at Stanford University, Verducci, senior research associate at the Center on Adolescence at Stanford and coordinator of the GoodWork Project, and their fellow essayists describe a field that is filled with people who make their living mediating between donors and recipients but whose "own values and agendas...consciously or not, may diverge from those of the donors and those of the recipients."

Through cautionary tales and case studies, Damon, Verducci, and their fellow authors make the point that intentions alone are not enough of a basis on which to make grants and go to great lengths to illustrate the challenges inherent in the grantor/grantee relationship. As Damon writes: "Beyond this general noble intention and the legal codes that enforce it, philanthropy has few agreed upon standards of judgment or conduct and little in the way of a definitive knowledge base of proven strategies.... [T]here is a reluctance in the field to prescribe the 'best' ways of accomplishing philanthropic work or to designate an authoritative set of guidelines that people entering the field have an obligation to master."

Largely comprised of essays from leading academics, third sector professionals, and former government officials, Taking Philanthropy Seriously examines the currents moving through contemporary American philanthropy, many of which — like venture philanthropy — aren't that new, and also traces the ethics and politics of more traditional giving, from the Greeks and Romans through the Rockefellers and Gateses.

Other essays describe challenges inherent to the philanthropic sector that often go overlooked, including the relative lack of training given to foundation staff. How does one become a program officer in the first place? Ask Laura Horn and Howard Gardner in a chapter titled "The Lonely Profession." And how do program officers decide which organizations are worthy of a grant and which are not? Those new to philanthropy might be surprised to discover that many program officers fell into philanthropy by chance, or were recruited from fields or organizations already supported by their current employer. Others were grantees who hankered to learn how it feels to be on the giving side of the equation, while still others are just "passing through" and expect to leave the profession as soon as they have acquired a better understanding of their chosen field.

Regardless of how or why they entered the field, program officers often are daunted by the challenges of their job. "While some grantmakers manage to find lasting satisfaction in their work with the support of good mentorship, professional reflection, enduring stamina, and unusual patience, many other grantmakers eventually burn out," writes Tom Tierney, chairman and founder of the Bridgespan Group. As a result, many good practitioners leave philanthropy, or worse, notes Tierney, stay and let their work suffer.

The essays in the final section of the book offer strategies for building what Damon calls a "domain for responsible giving," where long-standing debates about how much foundations should be required to pay out (most of the essayists seem ambivalent) and whether venture philanthropy has helped the field (a qualified yes) are explored.

While the book's title might suggest that foundations tend to act heedlessly, the essays instead focus on how a foundation's good intentions require careful examination. The noble intention of Damon, Verducci, and their fellow essayists is to point out aspects of the practice of philanthropy that could be improved. Damon admits that some might consider this approach "curmudgeonly," but his larger point is that philanthropy will only reach its full potential by admitting and examining its weaknesses better than it does at present. Or, as Mihaly Cskszentmihalyi, the well-known author of Flow and other books on the psychology of creativity, writes in the volume's concluding chapter: "To point out such [weaknesses] is a sign not of pessimism but of faith in a better future."

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Now I've Done It

I broke down. I caved to commercialism. When I walked into the Barnes & Noble by Union Square, I had intended to merely wander through aisles and shelves -- to strech my legs and figure out what I might want to buy with the Amazon gift certificates I've received for writing a couple book reviews. (Man does not live on free books and garage sales alone!)

But there were fewer tables in the front than usual. And upstairs, there was more open space. Why? Well, Harry Potter is coming, of course! There was a sign that gave the time till the book went on sale (just a little more than a day), and it was obvious that all sorts of displays and ancillary stuff would fill the space soon.

That's when it happened. I decided to buy my first Harry Potter book. I started at the beginning, of course: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. It appears to be manageable, as debut novels should be. The new movie out now, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was from a book that clocked in at around 250,000 words. I don't expect to write a review of Stone -- Lord knows there's enough out there already about J.K. Rowling's books. But I am looking forward to determining for myself whether it's written as well as many people say it is.

What Are You Reading?

Well, it's nice to see others believe this too. Dana Gioia, the head of the National Endowment for the Arts, recently told a Kansas City audience about the value of reading. In short, he said readers make good workers. So get to work America, and take your novels to work.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Beat Goes On

I'm not a huge fan of the beat writers -- their technique sometimes strikes me as sloppy, though I understand it's part of the package -- but in light of the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, I'm willing to recognize one of the most famous artistic groups of the past century. A Boston Globe writer takes a trip to find out what remains of beat America and whether Kerouac, Cassady, and Ginsburg still resonate in 21st century America. The contrasts are interesting. Back then, the beats saw a barrenness in politics and seemed to do little (at least for about a decade.) Today, politics is again barren, but I think young people are more active in the process.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Second Novel of the Second Daughter

I seem to have forgotten that former Vice President Al Gore's daughter Kristin is a published novelist. She's just come out with her second novel, Sammy's House, which follows the young Ohio politico-kid from her first novel into a staff position at the White House, working for the vice president. The "review" in USA Today doesn't actually give you any sense of the story Gore tells, so I can't venture an opinion on whether it's any good or not, but anyone interested in finding out more can read this excerpt.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Keep Reading Kids

In the same vein as the post below about Harry Potter, the Boston Globe reports that kids aren't reading more than before the Potter phenomenon. While they clearly have enjoyed reading about Harry and Dumbeldore and Hermione, et al., the kids need to be shown that other worlds exist for their discovery. Sounds like we need more reading parents and teachers to encourage them!

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Bestseller

In general, I've avoided mentioning Harry Potter on this blog -- not out of any dislike of the stories (which, I sheepishly admit, I've not read, though I have seen most of the movies), but because I've not felt a need to add to the mess. Well, my thoughts are changing now, and this little item from USA Today caught my eye. I like that they interviewed several young readers. One in particular impressed me. Andrew Miller, 15, was asked if he'd be disappointed if Harry Potter died in the final installment.

"I know that J.K. Rowling doesn't like it when an author finishes a series with open characters so that another author could possibly pick up the series and continue with it. I will be very disappointed but will understand if he does die. I guess I will have to see how I really feel if this does happen."

The kid sounds like he's hooked, and if he loved Harry and the other characters, perhaps he'll continue to read other great books and build a lifetime of reading. I'd be honored to have him read my novels when they come out. I'd like to know what he thinks.

A Book to Listen to

Despite my recent problems with my contact lenses, I don't often think about how losing my vision would alter my entire life and things I enjoy doing. This little piece about electronic books reminded me how lucky I am. Give it a read.