The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr & George Spafford

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As is hopefully obvious to anyone who has ever found themselves on this site, this is a blog about fiction. (I like to think that the clue’s in the title.) It is a record of the novels and short story collections that I read.  Anyway, my point is that I do not ordinarily make mention of the non-fiction books that I read.

However, today I have decided to make an exception. Or – as the word ‘novel’ does appear in the book’s subtitle – a semi-exception. Today I am featuring The Phoenix Project, or to give the book its full title: The Phoenix Project: A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win.

The Phoenix Project: A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win

Clearly this is a book written with the intention of teaching its audience about a particular topic (in this case DevOps and how to re-think IT) and could very naturally have been written in a traditional textbook style with different chapters focusing on different aspects of the overall topic. However, in this case, the authors decided to use a narrative to convey their polemic. This is especially surprising in this case because there are three authors, and as you will know, novels are almost exclusively written by a single person.

Before I get on to reveal what I thought of this book, I will mention that I have read some other instructional type books that have tried a narrative approach, but sadly they have not always done so to great effect. This is not to criticise the idea: I am absolutely convinced of the power of good storytelling, but of course you have to have the storytelling / writing talent to pull it off.

So, how did The Phoenix Project fare?

Well, you would probably not want to read it for its literary qualities alone, but I have to say that the narrative approach is actually used to good effect here. The narrative makes it extremely easy for the reader to read 30, 40, 50 pages at a time all about common IT problems (and later their solutions). And whilst the characters are hardly going to be studied for their subtle complexity and startling metaphysical insights, they do help the authors to demonstrate how the theory they are talking about impacts real people and organisations. As I was reading the book, I certainly found myself thinking about who the Bills, Sarahs, Brents, etc. were in organisations I have worked for!

 Okay, enough about the style of the book, what is it actually about? (If you have no interest in the world of IT, then feel free to stop reading now!)

When we meet Bill, he has just been promoted (against his will and better judgement) from an IT middle manager to VP of IT Operations. Within a very short space of time, the company’s payroll system fails a few hours before staff are due to get paid. This is obviously a big deal. Then, in scrabbling around to try to fix this catastrophe, the IT department somehow bring down the storage area network (SAN). Troubleshooting is nigh-on impossible because all sorts of changes have been made to production systems without proper controls. On top of this, the auditors have identified a whole raft of IT failings, and the highest profile IT project (Project Phoenix) – which is meant to give the failing company a fighting chance of becoming successful again – is already way over budget and way over time.

Needless to say, Bill finds himself in a very unenviable position, with the company’s CEO, executive board, business units, and development teams all very angry and blaming Bill and his team. If there is any hope of Bill and the company surviving, something needs to change. In fact, many things do. And fast.

Thankfully, some help is at hand in the form of a rather eccentric guru type figure named Erik. Wearing various dishevelled outfits and often munching on doughnuts, Erik appears now and then to offer Bill some wise words and to talk about The Three Ways…

If anyone reading this blog does work in IT, or in a business unit that heavily depends on IT (and which business units do not these days?!) then I would definitely recommend this book. It definitely does a good job of highlighting some of the perennial problems that exist in most IT departments. It also convincingly argues that focusing on individual issues in isolation is never going to make the IT department truly healthy and productive; that for this, broader solutions thinking is needed.

If you are interested in finding out more about the book, or The Three Ways advocated by Erik, or how the DevOps movement can help your IT department enable your business to win, head over to the IT Revolution website: http://itrevolution.com/books/phoenix-project-devops-book/

Right, now back to reading some proper novels… Next up, some William Faulkner.

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

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Hello dear readers. Apologies for my absence. It has been a very busy few weeks. I did in fact finally finish reading An American Tragedy a while ago, but this is the first time that I’ve had the chance to sit down and update this blog.

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
Here are some titbits and highlights from this large novel:

First published: 1925

Length: my edition runs to a whopping 856 pages

Meaning of the title: I guess that Dreiser is subverting the well-known notion of “the American Dream”. Broadly speaking, the American Dream can be said to represent opportunity for all and the possibility of each man reaching ever greater levels of success, riches and happiness. So, even in the very title, Dreiser appears to be questioning this notion. The novel is also a tragedy in the true sense of the word, as Clyde’s downfall is brought about by his own innate weaknesses.

Opening lines:

Dusk – of a summer night. And the tall walls of the commercial heart of an American city of perhaps 400,000 inhabitants – such walls as in time may linger in a mere fable.

Setting: Kansas City, Chicago, and Lycurgus – a fictitious small town in New York

Origins: Dreiser apparently based the book on an infamous criminal case. As in the novel, the real case featured an overturned boat and the body of young woman found in a lake in Upstate New York. The man convicted of killing her also denied murder.

What’s to like? For me, the plot is the best thing about this novel. It is compelling and it does make for a good read. However, see the next point…

What’s not to like? Whilst the plot itself is gripping, the writing style sometimes leaves a little to be desired.  It is very heavy-handed in places, so much so that you nearly always know a long time in advance what is coming next. And, strangely, this makes the experience of reading the tragedy more not less painful. There is also some highly questionable punctuation, including dashes seemingly in every other paragraph. In fact, to my mind, the text cries out for some editorial attention.

Key quotes: I’ve picked out a few choice excerpts that give a flavour of the tale.

Early in the novel we find Clyde reflecting on his current situation and comparing his life with the lives of others:

His life should not be like this. Other boys did not have to do as he did.

Next is one of the many passages that highlight the conflicting desires that rage within the young Clyde. On the one hand he is desperately trying to better himself and to fit in with those he views as his social superiors, yet on the other hand he cannot seem to escape certain desires and behaviours that run counter to his social ambitions:

… he had sought to be as retiring and cautious as possible. For – after that and while connected with the club, he had been taken with the fancy of trying to live up to the ideals with which the seemingly stern face of that institution had inspired him – conservatism – hard work – saving one’s money – looking neat and gentlemanly. It was such an Eveless paradise, that.

Towards the end of the novel there is a powerful scene wherein a local priest gets to the heart of the matter when reciting a gospel passage to Clyde:

What matter it if a man gaineth the whole world and loseth his own soul?

In summary: a good yarn that I would recommend, although I suspect that its length and slightly dry style will put some people off trying this novel.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham.

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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If you’re in love it ought to make you happy.

I read Tender is the Night some fifteen years ago, but, to be honest, I could remember very little about it, other than that I had thought highly of it at the time. So, I decided recently that I would dust off my old copy and re-read this Fitzgerald classic.

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

As with Fitzgerald’s most famous novel, The Great Gatsby, this is a book peopled by rich, glamorous, successful Americans, enjoying all the thrills that the Jazz Age had to offer them. Fitzgerald also explores some similar themes in this novel, such as the hollowness and lack of meaning that exist beneath all the glamour of the lives of the idle rich.

In other ways, however, this is a very different book to Gatsby. For a start, it is about twice as long, and offers a much more detailed study of the lives of its central characters over a long period of time. In Gatsby, most of the action takes place within a few months; here we observe the life of Dick Diver over a dozen or so years.

The prose style is also somewhat different. In Gatsby, Fitzgerald famously produced extraordinarily beautiful, finely crafted, and memorable prose; here the effect of the narrative is much more subtle. The text is undeniably powerful, but its force is built up slowly over time, scene by scene. In this sense, it is not until you have finished the novel that its full impact hits you.

The novel focuses on the lives of Dick and Nicole Diver – a celebrated couple amongst the fast set living on the French Riviera between the wars. In fact, when we first meet Dick, he is a talented young psychiatrist, just starting out in life, with everything going for him. He has intelligence, a talent for his chosen profession, good looks, impeccable manners, and a lot of charm. On top of this, he is also a good man: kind, generous and friendly.

Dick first meets Nicole as a patient in a Zürich clinic. Nicole has been brought to the clinic by her rich American family in the hope that the doctors can help her overcome her schizophrenia-like symptoms (brought on as a result of abuse from her father). Nicole does indeed improve, and against his better judgement, the young doctor allows himself to fall in love with his beautiful young patient.

In the next part of the novel, we observe the happy couple living in the south of France. The Divers seem to have everything, spending their time in glamorous surroundings, enjoying the high life with plenty of friends around them. In fact, the couple act as a kind of nucleus around which other rich and successful people gather. There are countless parties hosted by the Divers, with fine food and wine, music, and dancing. Their guests are treated like royalty and everyone seems to be living the dream.

…to be included in Dick Diver’s world for a while was a remarkable experience: people believed he made special reservations about them, recognizing the proud uniqueness of their destinies. He won everyone quickly with an exquisite consideration and a politeness that moved so fast and intuitively that it could be examined only in its effect.

However, even from fairly early on in the tale, there are also quiet, niggling hints that all if not quite right in this apparent paradise.

One day, the Divers and their friends meet a beautiful young American actress called Rosemary Hoyt on the beach. Characteristically, they immediately invite Rosemary and her mother to join them all for dinner that evening. The beauty and glamour and charm of the Divers powerfully impacts young Rosemary, and she becomes somewhat awestruck of the couple. This later develops into an infatuation for Dick, something which he initially tries to brush off.

However, as the summer days roll on, further cracks start to appear in the structure of this seemingly perfect Mediterranean bubble. Over a period of time, friendships dissolve, Nicole suffers further breakdowns, Dick starts drinking too much, the two drift further apart. Then, after a chance meeting back in America, Dick and Rosemary start a doomed love affair.

They were both restless in the night. In a day or two Dick would try to banish the ghost of Rosemary before it became walled up with them, but for the moment he had no force to do it. Sometimes it is harder to deprive oneself of a pain than of a pleasure, and the memory so possessed him that for the moment there was nothing to do but to pretend.

There are many parallels here with Fitzgerald’s own life. His wife Zelda was also glamorous and rich; she too was hospitalised with schizophrenia and then drifted in and out of health over the years; the pair lived a decadent life with other American ex-pats in the south of France; and Fitzgerald drank too much. Clearly this is a tale that draws heavily on its author’s own life.

There are many moving scenes in the novel, including several that chart Dick’s slow descent into drink and dissipation, as he struggles to find meaning in his relationships and in his broader life. There is real poignancy in certain scenes as Dick and others come to realise that he has now lost much of the vitality and purpose that he possessed so abundantly in his youth. In fact, by the end, Dick is a mere shell of his former self, and yet we do not despise him; rather we recognise in his story many truths about our own world.

But Dick had come away for his soul’s sake, and he began thinking about that. He had lost himself – he could not tell the hour when, or the day or the week, the month or the year.

For me, this is the real genius of the novel: Fitzgerald presents us with a charismatic yet flawed human life, and skilfully and perceptively shows us the beauty but also the tragedy within. This is indeed a brilliant piece of literature.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

The Art of the Tale (short story collection)

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When I finished reading my last novel, I decided that it was high time to sample some more short stories. I know that not all fiction fans go in for the short story form (my wife, for example, reads many a novel but never touches short stories), but I like reading some every now and then. Whilst you perhaps do not get the same depth or breadth as you get in a longer work, the very fact that each one is much less of an investment means that they are a great way of exploring new authors or genres.

The Art of the Tale (81 short stories by various authors)

The Art of the Tale is a huge anthology of short stories collected by Daniel Halpern, and contains eighty-one stories written by authors from all around the world. Here is some of the blurb from the back cover:

The years since World War II have seen an exciting resurgence of the short story. From Albert Camus to William Maxwell, from Amos Oz to R. K. Narayan, from Ann Beattie to Yukkio Mishima – this incomparably rich and diverse collection attests to the vigor and excellence of the modern short story throughout the world.

I actually bought this volume ten years ago, when I took a creative writing module whilst at university. However, I only read about a third of the stories at the time (I know this as the ones I’ve read are dated), and the hefty tome has sat on my bookshelf, largely untouched ever since. Until now, that is.

And this is exactly why good books should be kept, stored and treasured on your bookshelves, not discarded like used toys. I knew that I wanted to read the remaining stories, and was confident that I would indeed do so.

I have had plenty of books that have sat on my bookshelves for some years before I have read them, and I have plenty still. I’m not talking about books that I have no intention of reading (I have no interest in keeping a book I have neither read nor intend to read); I am talking about books that I know I want to read, even if their turn does not come for some time.

In this sense, I guess I view my bookshelves the way some people view their wine cellars. I want to good, well-stocked bookcase so that I can be confident of always finding something to suit my mood any time I want to read a new book.

Anyway, back to the short stories… I have to say that there are some cracking examples in this collection. Many an evening I told myself that I’d read just one, only to find, some considerable time later, that I had devoured three or four. Some of stories that particularly stood out to me are listed below:

  • Little Whale, Varnisher of Reality by Vasily Aksenov (Russia)
  • The Country Husband by John Cheever (United States)
  • Communist by Richard Ford (United States)
  • The Life of the Imagination by Nadine Gordimer (South Africa)
  • Two Gentle People by Graham Greene (England)
  • Spring in Fialta by Vladimir Nabokov (Russia)
  • Rain by Merce Rodoreda (Spain)
  • In the Garden by Leon Rooke (Canada)
  • Beyond the Pale by William Trevor (Ireland)
  • Hunters in the Snow by Tobias Wolff (United States)

Here is photo showing some of the contents (click on the image to view it at full size):

A section of the table of contentsI also like the quote used on the inside title page:

Unlike the novel, a short story may be, for all purposes, essential. (Jorge Luis Borges)

The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon

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After the pleasant, entertaining and soothingly nostalgic experience of re-reading My Family and Other Animals, I thought I would go for a very different kind of book next. And boy! is The Crying of Lot 49 a very different kind of book!

In fact, I do not really know how to begin to describe it. Let me see… Well, in one sense it is a story about a lady called Oedipa Maas, who discovers that a wealthy ex-boyfriend has died and made her a co-executor of his estate. In order to fulfill this duty, Oedipa begins to look into the business affairs of the late man (Pierce Inverarity), and in doing so starts to unearth a trail of information that possibly points to there being an underground postal delivery service.

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

This quest leads Oedipa down some very strange paths. At one point she meets Manny di Presso, a lawyer who is suing the Inverarity estate on behalf of his client, who recovered and sold human bones to Inverarity but apparently never received proper payment. (The human bones, it transpires, were wanted to make charcoal for cigarette filters. Obviously.)

Oedipa also finds herself tangled up with a good-looking chap named Metzger, who is an ex-child television actor, and a Beatleseque group called The Paranoids, who are all mop-haired Americans, who sing with pronounced British accents. Then there is Oedipa’s psychiatrist, Dr. Hilarius; the great stamp expert, Genghis Cohen; and another chap named Mike Fallopian, who our protagonist meets in a bar, and who provides Oedipa with more information, such as about the existence of The Peter Pinguid Society.

Confused? I certainly was. But things begin to get really complicated when one of The Paranoids points out the strange similarity between these unfolding events and the plot of a 17th-century play called The Courier’s Tragedy.

This lurid Jacobean revenge play, when not showcasing gruesome torture scenes, seems to be somehow tied up with a centuries-old conflict between two mail distribution companies: Thurn and Taxis on the one hand, and Trystero on the other. As Oedipa digs further into this strange mystery, she begins to meet others who seem to be in some way connected with this unofficial mail service, and even discovers that it has a secret symbol (the muted post horn) and a network of disguised post boxes seemingly scattered throughout America.

There are plenty more characters and plot detours and details in this sprawling, loose text, but I shan’t mention much more. Well, I won’t mention much more other than the fact that almost everything may not be as it seems. That is, that Oedipa Mass herself at several points in the story questions the reality of all of these strange elements and, in turn, questions her own sanity.

Basically, this is the kind of postmodern text where pretty much everything is up for grabs and open to interpretation. I did enjoy reading this novella, although I am also quite looking forward to reading something slightly less convoluted for my next read.

Meaning of the title: the title refers of the sale at auction of the deceased man’s stamp collection (which happens to be lot 49). This collection may or may not hold the key to the whole Trystero mystery.

Trivia about the author: Thomas Pynchon is a famous recluse. He has not given any interviews for years and years and only a handful of photos of him are known to exist.

Standout quote: “Shall I project a world?”

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, which is not quite as off-the-wall, but does interweave various incongruous storylines and plays with multiple meanings. John Fowles’ great novel The Magus is also fantastic if you enjoy a gripping mystery.

Franny and Zooey – J. D. Salinger

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What makes great art great? Or, to narrow the scope slightly, what makes great literature great literature? Is there a formula one can compile and measure a piece of writing against? Or is our response to art always just a subjective matter?

Far greater minds than mine have grappled with such questions for centuries, and whilst there is a variety of opinions, it seems to me, that most people agree that there certainly is an objective aspect involved in the critique of art. For example, in the case of reading a piece of prose, one can ask: is the writing compelling, powerful, persuasive? Does the work entice, challenge, and make its readers think? However, at the same time, reading (and the appreciation of any other art form) is also undoubtedly a very personal thing.

And this, to my mind, is what makes it so fascinating. How one piece of art can be viewed / read / seen / etc. by a hundred different people and can elicit such a different response from each one.

Now, the reason I bring up such philosophical ponderings here is that I have just re-read a novella that I simply love: Franny and Zooey – and yet am not sure that I can clearly express why.

Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger

There are books that I absolutely love and which I would naturally expect almost anyone who read them to also love – e.g. The Great Gatsby, or Great Expectations, or To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I do genuinely find it hard to imagine that anyone who has the remotest fondness for fiction could read one of these and not agree that it is a truly great novel.

But then there are other novels that I personally love just as much, yet somehow imagine others might not be particularly taken with – novels such as The Good Soldier, The Go-Between, and Lolita. And I think that Franny and Zooey fits in to this latter camp.

It is a strange novella (if that’s even the right term?). It was originally published in The New Yorker magazine as two separate stories, and only later published together and released as one book. And what does it consist of? Well, not very much, in one sense. Franny and Zooey of the title are the two youngest siblings of the Glass family (whom Salinger wrote about elsewhere), and here we find young Franny in the midst of a kind of breakdown.

I’m sick of just liking people. I wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect.

Born with a fantastic intellect, raised with the privileges of a fine education, and having a loving family and good looks to boot, Franny should be just about as happy as any American lass could be, and yet suddenly she finds she cannot escape the disappointment she feels for everything and everyone around her. Franny then stumbles across a small mystical little book entitled: The Way of a Pilgrim, which she reads, clings to and tries to imitate from there on out. Zooey, as her elder brother, is brought onto the scene by their mother to try and comfort his sister (albeit in a not very comforting manner) – and there you have it: the synopsis of this entire piece.

Yet despite its brevity and simplicity of plot, it is truly brilliant. The loose dialog that proceeds between the two siblings is both an intimate snapshot of a family and also a commentary on the broader world and its values.

When Salinger is writing at his best, I find his characters are so well captured, so incredibly vivid, and the writing here is a fine example. Even thought this is a pretty slender volume (my edition runs to a mere 157 pages), I come away feeling that I know his principle characters so well. I know what they are like – how they act, how they think, how they speak. I know their habits and their little idiosyncrasies. In short, the characters become fully alive to me.

‘Oh, it’s lovely to see you!’ Franny said as the cab moved off. ‘I’ve missed you.’ The words were no sooner out than she realized that she didn’t mean them at all. Again with guilt, she took Lane’s hand and tightly, warmly laced fingers with him.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: Salinger’s most famous work, The Catcher in the Rye.

Stoner – John Williams

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Sometimes when people give me novels it can be months or even years before I get round to reading them. I do sometimes feel a bit bad about this, although on the plus side (I reason with myself) at least I do tend to read them eventually. However, no such issue with this latest novel – I was given it by my kind Mother-in-law last month for my birthday, and decided to read it next.

Stoner by John Williams

I have to confess that I’d never heard of either the novel of its author previously, so was doubly intrigued to find out what it was like.

It’s an unlikely novel, in a way, in that it tells the tale of a fairly quiet, ordinary man, who leads a quiet and mostly uneventful life. In fact, the opening page almost seems to have been written to try and put off any potential readers – here is an extract:

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910 […] he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. […] Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now.

However, once you start reading a bit further, you discover that the novel’s strength and its appeal lies in its close attention to detail and the compelling account of one man’s experience of existence. Stoner, who has had a basic childhood on a small farm leaves home for the first time to go to University. He then marries young and hastily and very soon discovers that he has made a poor choice. Within weeks his wife and he come to an unspoken agreement to remain married but to essentially live life independent of each other, thus leading to a lonely existence for the young scholar. However, as time progresses Stoner goes on to find meaning and enjoyment in his research and in his teaching.

Some years later, he even finds love – an event that is told with some poignancy in the novel:

In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.

And a little later we read the following passage, which I love:

In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming; a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.

This was an intelligent, thoughtful tale. It probably would not keep the attention of one looking for action and adventure, but there is much to admire in the quiet, subtle narrative that is perfectly suited to its subject.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham or The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse.

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