The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch (with Jeffrey Zaslow)

On September 18, 2007 Randy Pausch delivered a lecture at Carnegie Mellon University entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” as part of an ongoing “Journeys” series which asked professors to create a lecture as if it was their last — thinking hard about what really mattered to them.  Unfortunately, this really was to be Pausch’s last lecture since he had been given a terminal diagnosis of pancreatic cancer the month before.  Pausch was told that he had 3-6 months to live and as a result, his last lecture was really something special.

Pausch only had an hour for his lecture so in the book The Last Lecture he expanded on his points, describing in detail how, through hard work, resourcefulness and a bit of luck, he achieved nearly all of his childhood dreams.  Pausch was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, had also taught at the University of Virginia and was a significant contributor to the field of Computer Science.  He gives professional and personal advice on dealing with difficult people and what to do when you realize you’re the difficult one.  He shares stories of speedbumps he experienced and how he overcame them.  He also shares his thoughts about dealing with a terminal illness, knowing that your days are numbered and how to best use the time you have to tie things up and leave a legacy for your family.

Pausch rationalized spending a portion of his precious, limited time on writing his last lecture and this book stating two important goals:  He did it for himself, to prove that he could accomplish this final, difficult task despite the foreboding knowledge of his imminent death, and he did it for his three young children, to whom he wanted to give something of himself that would be available for them when they got older and wondered what kind of person their father was.  There is even a chapter near the end of the book where Pausch speaks directly to each of them.  The reader may feel as if they are intruding on something very personal, but it’s this sharing that allows us to feel especially moved by his emotion and character, and in that way his message to them is a gift to anyone who reads the words.

Randy Pausch died on July 25, 2008.  You can watch his last lecture here:

Published in: on October 14, 2008 at 5:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Pillars of the Earth / World Without End by Ken Follett

I’m a big fan of the epic fantasy genre but I never realized how similar fantasy novels are to historic fiction.  Take away the elves, dwarves and impending magical catastrophes, add a loosely factual historical framework and George R. R. Martin becomes Ken Follett.  The novels of both authors are rife with political intrigue, multiple complex characters and storylines, blushingly graphic sexual content and really mean bad guys.  They’re satisfyingly obese tomes that can be week-long companions until closed for the final time with a contented sigh.

For that reason, and also for my love of English history, I thoroughly enjoyed both Pillars of the Earth (written in 1989) and World Without End (the sequel, written 18 years later in 2007).  It’s true that the books could be read in either order since the stories take place centuries apart, but I’d recommend reading Pillars first because there are a few references to the first in the second which will make more sense read in that order.

Both novels take place primarily in the town of Kingsbridge, England.  Pillars of the Earth is set in the 1100s during the time period known as “The Anarchy” between the sinking of the White Ship and murder of Thomas Becket.  The book tells the story of the newly elected Prior, Phillip, and the master builder, Tom, who is hired to build a new cathedral after a fire claims the old building.  Tom’s stepson, Jack, continues the project incorporating the new gothic styles he discovers while in France.  Prior Phillip and struggling wool merchant, Aliena, doggedly pursue their goals while villians Bishop Waleran and Earl William connive against them.  The story spans many years and readers follow entire lifespans of characters and their children.  The characters and their individual stories are fictional, of course, but the intricate details of the Catholic church’s power, the English feudal system and the incredible process of architectural design and execution are factual and incredibly interesting.

In World Without End, Kingsbridge has a new prior, an aging cathedral, a growing town and new heroes and villians in the 1300s during the start of the Hundred Years War.  One of the biggest differences in the two novels is that Follett supports the fiction more substantially with facts and actual political events in World Without End.  Also, where architecture and the building process were the focus of the first novel, a large part of the second novel tells of the plague sweeping through Europe and revolutionary hospital practices used to try to prevent the spread of the disease.  In both books the disparity between men and women is shocking and there were a few chapters that made me want to stand up and punch the first male I could find in the mouth.  It’s really amazing that such inequality existed, not only between the sexes, but also between classes.  The frustration of poor laborers was palpable when reading the book as they tried again and again to change their lot through hard work, only to be beaten down repeatedly at a lord’s whim.

Ken Follett has written many novels and he’s probably most widely known for his World War II books but I think these two are really singular and I’d recommend them to just about anyone.  I believe Pillars of the Earth remains his bestselling work.

Published in: on October 12, 2008 at 7:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Fantastic book. 

A quick synopsis:  Junior is a Spokane Indian living on a reservation in Washington state.  He’s poor, but so is everyone else on the reservation.  Even though he shows potential with his cartoon drawings he has accepted the fact that, like the rest of the kids there, he’ll never go to college and will end up living on the reservation, dealing with poverty and alcoholism for the rest of his life.  After getting a wake-up call from a teacher that he accidentally hit in the face with a book, Junior decides he’s going to enroll in an all-white high school off the reservation, twenty-two miles away.  His parents are happy, but the rest of the reservation views him as a traitor.  Junior finds himself living two lives — part-time Indian, part-time white kid. 

So many young adult books are aimed at girls, but this National Book Award Winner is a great one for guys.  It deals with tough coming-of-age issues like friendship, respect, bullying, love, grief and trying to fit in while staying true to yourself.  It doesn’t get weighed down or take itself too seriously, though.  The author, Sherman Alexie, manages to sneak in important life lessons amidst the humor and compelling frankness.  Junior’s cartoons (done by Ellen Forney) pepper the book with delicious wit.  Reading this book is a great experience.  You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll learn a whole mess of important lessons without even realizing it.

Published in: on October 1, 2008 at 8:57 pm  Comments (2)  
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