Fortune Rocks by Anita Shreve, who is one of my favorite fiction writers. Although described as a “romantic feminist,” she is also concerned with the complexities of her characters’ motivations, relationships, and lives. Set at the turn of the 20th century, the setting a rocky New Hampshire coastline area called "Fortune's Rocks." Olympia Biddeford, age 15, is walking the beach, feeling the first stirrings of a being an adult. The strong-willed daughter of an upstanding Boston couple, she soon "learns of desire" as she begins a passionate affair with a married writer and physician, John Haskell, three times her age. Upon meeting, they experience a sexual spark. Soon, they fall into “sinful trysting.” Once the plot gets a chance to develop, Olympia gets pregnant, gives up the child, fights to get child back, settles down considerably, turning into a modernized The Scarlet Letter, a tale of a woman attaining feminist independence by living outside her period's societal mores, but fortunately with adequate financial resources provided by her family (Hester never had it so good). One reviewer suggested, “In the end, Anita Shreve's seventh novel is a polished, supremely entertaining variation on Wuthering Heights, with Olympia and Haskell sitting in for Catherine and Heathcliff.” The author did some meticulous research for her New England background, which gives this study of one wayward woman some extra historical heft—especially as Olympia gets some exposure to the “Franco” mill worker community. The plot twists are a bit pat, Still, Fortune's Rocks is a romance in the classic sense of the word, and should be enjoyed as such, unless you are allergic to happy endings.
* The English Major by Jim Harrison: Cliff, a 60-year-old former Michigan high school teacher and farmer, bids good-bye to his inherited family farm (lost in a shady real estate deal); his wife, Vivian, of 38 years (who has been cheating on him and orchestrated the shady deal) and dear departed dog Lola (the truest woman in his life); and sets off on a yearlong, countrywide jag reminiscent of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” or more accurately, “Transcendentalism and the Lack of Taurus Maintenance” . Armed with his childhood jigsaw puzzle mapping the 50 states, Cliff tosses out a puzzle piece every time he crosses state lines, reminisces and tries (with as much humor as he can muster) to make the best of his shattered existence. The miles between Minnesota and Montana play host to a melodramatically drawn-out love/hate romantic triumph with Marybelle, a married former student. After they split, she returns during a visit with his affluent gay son, Robert, in San Francisco. As more calamities ensue in Arizona, New Mexico and Montana, the possibility of reconciliation with Vivian looms. With less plot than meditations on aging, sex, and the meaning of life, Harrison is consistently witty and engaging as he drives home his timeless theme: that change can be beneficial at any point in life.
Ahead of the Curve, Philip Delves Broughton, a former journalist at the Daily Telegraph of London chronicles the author's love-hate relationship with the Harvard Business School, where he spent two years getting his M.B.A. Beginning with an account of his disillusionment with journalism and conflicted desire to make money, Broughton provides an account of his experiences in and out of the classroom as he struggles to survive the academic rigor and find a suitably principled yet lucrative path. Simultaneously repelled by his aggressive fellow capitalists in training and dazzled by his classes, visiting professors and the surprising beauty of business concepts, Broughton vacillates between cautious critique and faint praise. Although reflecting a professional journalist's polish and attention to detail, the book flounders as it fails to provide enough color or damning dirt on the school to entertain in the manner of some tell-alls. The true heart of the story is less b-school confidential than a memoir of Broughton's quest to understand the business world and find his place in it. It doesn’t live up to its aspiration to “do for HBS, what Scott Thurow’s One L did for Harvard Law”. Broughton leaves HBS without a job offer, but with the idea of a book that, hopefully, will provide a return on his $150+K investment.
Nicholas Sparks, The Lucky One, In his 14th book, Sparks tells the story of former U.S. Marine, Logan Thibault, who carries a picture of a woman he's never met because it brings him good luck. When he sets out to find the woman, he meets with unexpected circumstances surrounding his new love and his shrouded past in a small town near Wilmington, NC. Though not Spark’s most original tale, the story flows well. Thibault, a manly man if ever there was one, is ideally but still convincing portrayed, and the supporting characters are interesting in their own right, even if not drawn with much nuance. The final result is a fun, quick read without too much over-the-top sentimentality. Sparks is probably the best male writer of romance novels around and has a formula that is usually engaging. I continue to read him largely because The Notebook is probably the most romantic novel I’ve ever read.
*East of the Mountains by David Guterson. This novel showcases the author's narrative and descriptive powers but lacks the crucial central theme found in his debut book, Snow Falling on Cedars. Ben is a 73-year-old physician with terminal cancer. He heads to the mountains, ostensibly on a bird-shooting trip, but really to end his life in order to spare his children and himself further suffering. But chance deflects his purpose. Guterson is meticulous in his background research and manages to make every detail realistic, but often with too much detail, I found myself skipping paragraphs that were well written but boring (to me). The people he meets on this odyssey were engaging, but the marijuana induced flashbacks were a bit contrived. Ben’s decision not to carry out his plan is, in my opinion, a bit of a copout, but the ending is satisfying. “A somber and competent novel - but without the magic of his first book.”
So Brave, Young and Handsome by Leif Enger. The book follows Monte Becket (a writer who lost his muse after one published work). He is about to reclaim his job at a small-town Minnesota post office when he meets Glendon Hale, a former outlaw who is traveling to Mexico to find his estranged wife. The odyssey is reminiscent of Huck Finn or Don Quixote and filled with colorful, almost too sharply drawn, characters. The story moves away from Monte's artistic struggle and becomes an adventure story with growing sense of redemption for the travelers. The progress has many listless moments, but reviewers seem to like Enger’s ability to “craft scenes so rich you can smell the spilled whiskey and feel the grit.”
*Wild Nights: Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James and Hemingway by Joyce Carol Oates. In these stories, Oates imagines the final days of five of America’s best known writers: Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Henry James, and Ernest Hemingway. Each of these is homage to the writer, an often ironic look at their work, and a tribute to Oakes’ knowledge and facility. After his death, Edgar Allan Poe finds himself on a desolate island, where he keeps a rambling diary and ultimately mates with a sea creature. A robotic replica of Emily Dickinson, "EDickinsonRepliLuxe," is in danger of being ravished by her owner while showing the shallowness of contemporary life. Sam Clements grows weary of Mark Twain and is threatened with a lawsuit by the parents of one of his beloved young "angelfish". As a volunteer at a London hospital during the Great War, Henry James finally finds love and learns that life is more brutal and bloody than his genteel, finely constructed prose reveals. Finally, in Ketchum, Idaho, Ernest Hemingway reevaluates his rugged "macho" persona and puts a shotgun to his head. Oates succeeds in capturing the style of each author and reveals more of their sexual proclivities than I needed to know; however, if the book were a class in writing agility, Oates deserves an A.
The Lost Diary of Don Juan by Douglas C. Abram: Set in the city of Seville at the end of the sixteenth century, this purported diary of Juan Tenario recounts his childhood raised by nuns in a convent, adolescent disillusionment, and escape to the city of Seville. There he becomes a cat burglar, then the protégé of the powerful Marquis de la Mota, who teaches him spying, swordsmanship (yes, both kinds), the appreciation of fine wine, and the seduction of women. The plot focuses on Don Juan’s increasingly complicated life: King Philip wants him to marry (someone, anyone); Don Ignacio, the head of Seville's Inquisition, wants him to burn; and the marquis plans to marry Don Juan’s newly recognized true love, Dona Ana. Abrams may take liberties with the social details of the time (according to the critics) but to folks who haven’t taken a history class in a few years, the historical occurrences seem to be treated with accuracy. Characters are stock, and the action is largely predictable. It was an enjoyable quick read, but did not live up to the reviews.
A Most Wanted Man by John le Carre. The author is considered to be the greatest living writer of spy thrillers, and has 20 successful previous novels to support that claim. His plot, characters and their morality are, in my opinion, unduly complicated and sometimes confusing. Turkish Muslims living in Hamburg, take in a street person calling himself Issaa setting off a chain of events implicating intelligence agencies from three countries. Issa, who claims to be a Muslim medical student, is a wanted terrorist and the son of Grigori Karpov, a Red Army colonel whose considerable assets are concealed at a private Hamburg bank. Tommy Brue, a stereotypical flawed everyman caught up in the machinations of spies and counterspies, enters the plot when Issa's attorney seeks to claim these assets. The book depicts the rivalries among post-9/11 intelligence agencies that should be allies. So bureaucrats have their own objectives and even basically decent people have flaws. None of the characters is as memorable as George Smiley, and I found “The Spy Who Came Out of the Cold” pretty slow going. Le Carre seems to always disappoint me, no matter how low my expectations are.
*My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, A very positive review in the New York Times encouraged me to pick up this book about how 37-year-old neuroanatomist Taylor experienced a massive stroke that erased her abilities to walk, talk, do mathematics, read, or remember details. The book details her slow recovery of those abilities (and the cultivation of new ones) and recounts exactly what happened with her brain. The explanation of how the brain works is the best part of this fascinating memoir of the brain's remarkable resiliency and of Taylor’s determination to regain her faculties and recount her experience for the benefit of others. Although she is now fully recovered, Taylor is not the same driven scientist that she was before the stroke. Her holistic approach to healing will be valuable to stroke survivors and their caregivers, who can pick up suggestions from Taylor's accounts of how her mother provided just the kind of care to bring her back to life. The last section of the book suffered, in my opinion, with a little too much ‘energy dynamics’ and ‘angel cards.’ Maybe I just haven’t been in California long enough.
River of Doubt, Candice Millard, A year after Roosevelt lost a third-party bid for the White House in 1912, he accepted an invitation for a South American trip that quickly became an ill-prepared journey down an unexplored tributary of the Amazon known as the River of Doubt. The small group, including his son Kermit, was hampered by the failure to pack enough supplies and the absence of canoes sturdy enough for the river's rapids. An injury Roosevelt sustained became infected with flesh-eating bacteria and left the ex-president so weak that, he told Kermit to leave him to die in the rainforest. Millard, a former staff writer for National Geographic, provides a touch of suspense and a tremendous amount of detail about the wildlife that Roosevelt and his fellow explorers encountered on their journey, as well as the cannibalistic indigenous tribe that stalked them much of the way. I sometimes got lost in the details and struggled to finish the book.
Gringos In Paradise by Barry Golson, In 2005, Barry and his wife Thia sold their Manhattan apartment, packed up their SUV, and moved to one of those idyllic hot spots, the surfing and fishing village of Sayulita on Mexico's Pacific coast. With humor and charm, Golson describes the year they spent planning and building their dream home in Sayulita -- population 1,500. They made lasting friends with Mexicans and fellow expatriates, and discovered the skill and artistry of local craftsmen. But the book focuses on the challenging process of building their house. It took them almost six months to do the planning and get permits. Then, they complete the construction in another six—much less that we took to renovate our house in Santa Barbara. They engaged a Mexican architect, builder, and landscape designer who not only built their home but also changed their lives. The book is a good read, but the Golson’s are either incredibly smart and lucky or they gloss over some of the challenges of building and living on a budget in a new country.
A Is For Alibi by Sue Grafton: This is the book that started it all, back in 1982, for Grafton. Since I see her walking at East Beach when she isn’t in Louisville, I wanted to go back to the beginning. A tough-talking former cop, private investigator, Kinsey Millhone has a one person detective agency in a quiet corner of Santa Teresa (read Barbara), California. A twice-divorced loner with few personal possessions or attachments, she’s got a soft spot for underdogs and lost causes and takes on a case to find out who really killed Laurence Fife, a slick divorce lawyer and slippery ladies' man—at least until someone killed him. The jury believed that it was his pretty young wife Nikki, so they sent her to prison for eight years. Now, Nikki's out on parole and wants Kinsey to find the real killer. There are a few suspects and a bit of danger, but Kinsey gets her man (in more ways than one). It is a fun, fast read.
*The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell was #1 on the NYT best seller list when I read the latest in a genre Gladwell has essentially pioneered—books that illuminate surprising patterns behind everyday phenomena. His gift is ability for spotting an intriguing mystery, luring the reader in, then gradually revealing his insights in engaging prose. Outliers begins with a provocative look at why certain five-year-old boys enjoy an advantage in ice hockey, and how these advantages accumulate over time. We learn what Bill Gates, the Beatles and Mozart had in common: along with talent and ambition, each enjoyed an unusual opportunity to intensively cultivate a skill that allowed them to rise above their peers. Gladwell investigates a few other mysteries (why the sons of Jewish clothiers became the best attorneys in NYC or why the culture of rice growing in Asia made their people seem more successful—especially in math (but not as pilots) but seems to build his cases by cherry picking the data that support his point of view. Despite this reservation, this is a important effort to get people to think ‘out of the box’ and is easy to read and enjoy.
Divine Justice by David Baldacci The fourth installment of the Camel Club series is an engaging 24 hour reading exercise. If you like Baldacci, you’ll enjoy this book. If you are a literary reader, you may want to pass. The book starts off with John Carr (aka Oliver Stone) on the run after taking out two senior US officials who had been responsible for the death of his wife and daughter when he gets involved in a fracas and ends up in Divine, a small town which is hiding a lot of secrets, which he has to resolve, and clear his name. The book’s plot is a little hit and miss. The Camel Club elements are interesting and Baldacci is an engaging writer, but some of the plot twists and the scenario around bad guys in high places seemed a little too contrived.
The Risk of Infidelity Index by Christopher G. Moore who has written nine novels starring Vincent Calvino, a disbarred American lawyer working as a PI in Bangkok. His prize-winning novels have been translated into ten languages, and were first published in North America in 2007, with The Risk of Infidelity Index, which received a short recommendation in the NYT. Calvino’s office is above the One Hand Clapping massage parlor where he find a dead “working" girl lying. The same day his major client dies from an alleged heart attack; his law firm refuses to pay Vincent. As demonstrations rock the city, Vincent finds himself unpaid and short of cash. Three of the Fab Four expatriate female friends hire him to conduct surveillance of their spouses. They have just read The Risk of Infidelity Index, which names Bangkok as the number one city for spousal infidelity. The plot takes several twists and turns but provides an entertaining, insightful and inexpensive tour of Bangkok.
Nothing to Be Afraid of by Julian Barnes, who is a literate Oxford intellectual (a very elite class who relish making the rest of us feel like Philistines). Most of the things that we worry about won’t actually happen, but death will. Barnes sifts through ‘unreliable memory’ to summon up how his ancestors, real and assumed, (most of them dead, and quite a few of them French, like Jules Renard, Flaubert, Zola) contemplated death and grappled with the perils and pleasures of pit-gazing. Barnes's self-professed amateur philosophical rambling seem self-indulgent to me, but literate reviewers loved his ramblings. I struggled to get through this book and at several points began to wonder if I was already in purgatory—if only I believed in purgatory.
A Walk on the Beach by Joan Anderson--In two previous books Anderson wrote about taking a break from her marriage and spending a year of solitude at the beach. Now, she tries to wring another book out of the experience by introducing her walking companion, Joan Erikson, wife of psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. Erikson's enthusiasm for life prompted Anderson to re-evaluate her own marriage and her role as she aged through the life stages that were the subject of Erikson's published writing, coauthored with her famous husband. Erikson reminded Anderson of the importance of continuing to learn, grow, change and, most notably, play as one ages, to be surprised by life and where it leads. She explained, "[A]s long as we are alive, we must keep transforming ourselves." I read the book because I also enjoy beach walks with a wise 92 year old who shares insights from a long successful life.
*The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga won the Man Booker Prize and is a darkly comic début novel set in India. Balram rises to become a chauffeur, then murders his employer and justifies his crime as the act of a "social entrepreneur." In a series of letters to the Premier of China, the chauffeur recounts his transformation from an honest, hardworking boy growing up in "the Darkness"— rural India where education and electricity are scarce because of poverty and corruption, and where villagers talk about local elections "like eunuchs discussing the Kama Sutra"—to a successful entrepreneur. He places the blame for his rage and crime on the avarice of the Indian élite, for whom bribes grease the wheels of progress and perpetuate a system in which many are sacrificed to the whims of a few. Adiga’s message isn’t subtle or unique, but Balram’s appealingly sardonic voice and acute observations about the social order are entertaining and unsettling.
Bright Futures by Stuart M. Kaminsky, the author of more than 60 novels and an Edgar Award winner who received the coveted Grand Master Award by the Mystery Writers of America, must be a good writer. I’m impressed by his productivity and reviews, but suspect it is hard to stay fresh and original after 60 books. In this mystery, 17-year-old Greg Lagerman, a student at a school for the gifted, hires Lew Fonesca, to exonerate a friend, 17-year-old Ronnie Graell who is accused of bludgeoning an eccentric wealthy politician who opposed a college financial-aid program. Fonesca’s initial probes soon place him in the crosshairs of an unknown assailant. Kaminsky provides enough twists, turns and odd ball characters to keep most readers guessing or confused, but I was glad to finish the book and find something better to read.
*The Little Giant of Aberdeen County is the marvelous first novel of the very talented Tiffany Baker—and is what The Ugly Duckling might have been if John Irvine had written it. Truly, the largest baby ever born in Aberdeen, is blamed her for her mother's death and becomes the subject of constant abuse and humiliation at the hands of her peers while her sister is destined to be May Queen and the wife of the youngest in a line of Dr. Robert Morgans. When her sister leaves town and a loveless marriage, Truly becomes a serf to Morgan and mother substitute to her eight-year-old nephew. She is a “flawed, prickly, enchanting heroine--part Cinderella, part Witch, and part Behemoth…happy endings are possible but hard-won. “ Truly's brother-in-law degrades her more than anyone could take —and ultimately Truly doesn’t. She finds her calling--the ability to heal with naturopathic techniques--hidden in a Morgan's family quilt and takes control over her life and herself.
*Everyman (audiobook) by Phillip Roth who has published 27 books, most of which deal with being Jewish, American, and horny. Recently, he has focused on aging and family connections. This is brief, elegant and powerful story boy who grows up obsessed with his and everybody else's health, and eventually dies in his 70s, just as he believed he would. This grown up Portnoy is a veteran of three failed marriages, successful adman, a father and a philanderer, a 70-something who spends his last days agonizing about his lost prowess (physical and sexual), envying his healthy and beloved older brother, and refusing to apologize for his many years of bad behavior, although he clearly regrets them. My favorite line is when, in retirement, he tells an art student, “"Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work," Roth is clearly a professional.
The Year of Magical Thinking (audiobook) by Joan Didion's whose husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, died of a heart attack, just after they had returned from the hospital where their only child, Quintana, was lying in a coma. This book is a memoir of Dunne's death, Quintana's illness, and Didion's efforts to make sense of experiences when nothing made sense. Critics were impressed by the candid examination of her own emotional disintegration, the book’s raw honesty and Didion’s meticulous reporting and research that “allow her memoir to transcend the merely personal and become a universal road map of loss.” I probably wouldn’t have finished reading the book, but enjoyed the audiobook on a boring drive.
**The Help by Kathryn Stockett who, like her heroine, Sketer Phelan, grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. The novel is set during the civil rights movement in Jackson, Miss., where black women were trusted to raise white children but not to polish the household silver or use a guest bathroom. Skeeter is just home from college in 1962, without a husband and anxious to write something more significant than the Junior League newsletter. She begins to collect the stories of the black women on whom the country club sets relies by enlisting Aibileen, a maid who's raised 17 children, and Aibileen's best friend Minny, who's been fired several times after mouthing off to her white employers. The stories are scathing, shocking, totally believable, and help bring pride and hope to the black community, while alienating Skeeter from her lifelong friends. Written in three distinct voices that are pitch perfect and confident, this my favorite book so far this year. (Mar.)
Runner by Thomas Perry is the sixth formulaic Jane Whitefield novel and has Jane, a Native American guide who helps people assume new identities, living quietly under an assumed name. Pregnant Christine Monahan shows up and the two women wind up fleeing cross-country with bad guys on their trail. Jane learns that Christine is the girlfriend of a sociopathic real estate mogul in San Diego obsessed with finding her and their unborn child. Jane puts $40K on her own new credit card (on an assumed identity) to give Christine and her baby new identities and the chase is on. Blending one dimensional characters, a sloppy plot, tenuous premises, gratuitous violence and Native American mysticism, the book suggests that success has made Perry sloppy or lazy. Don’t waste your time.
The Spare Room by Helen Garner begins with ‘Helen’ preparing a room in her Melbourne home for Nicola, an old friend who travels from Sydney to begin a course of alternative treatment for cancer. The story centers around these seemingly fraudulent treatments which probably do more harm than good, but Nicola has ‘undying’ faith in the unorthodox vitamin C injections. Helen begins to question her ability to care for someone so ill and so deep in denial. Nicola's unflinching optimism and grand naïveté are unconvincing. As the story wears on, I shared Helen’s exhaustion with the litanies of worsening symptoms and platitudes about death. (25)
*Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese is a wonderful 534-page first novel by a physician (and Stanford Professor) about identical twin boys born in Addis Ababa in 1954 and orphaned when their mother, a nun, dies in childbirth, and their surgeon father flees. Lovingly raised by Indian doctors at the mission hospital, Shiva and Marion have an almost telepathic connection until an adolescent love story goes awry and they go in very different directions with the practice of medicine. The sometimes exhaustive gore of medical procedures is matched by a poetic perception of the world. After medical school in Ethiopia, Marion escapes to America where the past catches up with him and he “must entrust his life to the two men he thought he trusted least: the surgeon father who abandoned him and the brother who betrayed him.”
*The Little Book by Selden Edwards, Written by the former headmaster of The Crane School, over a 30 year period, this book is a testimony to persistence, intelligence and good editing. If Mark Twain had written this (and he shows up in the book), the title might be "A California Baseballer in Doctor Freud's Court. Burden travels to 1897 Vienna from 1988 San Francisco. He has been a teenage baseball star and famed rock 'n' roller, but he's dreamed of Vienna since his prep school days, where his academic mentor instilled a love of the city's gilded paradoxes. Vienna is a cross roads on the emerging new century. Freud is discovering the Oedipus complex, Mahler is conducting his symphonies, Klimt is painting, Wittgenstein in starting to philosophize and the mayor, Karl Lueger, “is inventing modern, populist anti-Semitism-which the young Hitler will soon internationalize. To ensure true oedipal drama, Wheeler's father and grandparents come to town, too, all at different ages, and with very different agendas. “Edwards has great fun with time travel paradoxes and anachronisms, but the real romance in this book is with the period” and the type of prep-school Edwards probably attended and directed. “This novel ends up as a sweet, wistful elegy to the fantastic promise and failed hopes of the 20th century”. It also emphasizes the interconnectivity and impact of numerous small events and was one of my favorite reads in 2008. I read it again after hearing Edwards talking about the book and his path to becoming an overnight success and enjoyed it even more the second time around. On my first read, I didn’t pick up on who Wheeler’s father really was.
The Women by T.C. Boyle Frank is about four of the women in Lloyd Wright’s life. The story moves backwards in time through the accounts of four women in Wrights life: Olgivanna, the strong-willed, grounded dancer from Montenegro; Miriam, the drug-addled narcissist from Paris via Memphis; Kitty, the devoted first wife; and Mamah, the beloved and murdered soul mate and intellectual companion. But the novel centers on Taliesin, Wrights Oz-like Wisconsin home. The tragedies that befall Taliesin—fires, brutality—serve as proxy for Wrights inner turmoil. The most interesting character engaging person, to me, was Tadashi Sato, the fictional Japanese-American apprentice and narrator. The book didn’t make me like Wright (or his work) any better, but the critics found it “ a lush, dense and hyperliterate book—in other words, vintage Boyle.”
Long Lost by Harlan Corbett: Ten years ago, Myron Bolitar, sports agent, retired FBI agent, mystery solver and attorney, had a torrid affair with TV personality, Terese Collins. She disappeared and suddenly calls Myron from Paris because her ex-husband has been murdered and, of course, she is the primary suspect. The plot thickens when DNA at the scene belongs to her dead daughter. The twists and turns in this international search for the truth brings up shades of the Boys from Brazil and is engaging but not satisfying. Corbett is a terrific writer when he takes time to do his best work—too bad he was in a hurry with this.
*Proust was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer explores unfamiliar (at least to me) often-overlooked places in art and literary history where artists, writers and even a cookbook writer predicted scientific breakthroughs with their artistic insights. The 25-year old former Rhodes Scholar draws from his diverse background in lab work, science writing and fine cuisine to explain how Cézanne anticipated breakthroughs in the understanding of human sight, how Walt Whitman intuited the biological basis of thoughts and, in the title essay, how Proust penetrated the mysteries of memory by immersing himself in childhood recollections. He also draws from George Elliot, Virginia Wolfe, Stravinsky and Auguste Escoffier, the chef who essentially invented modern French cooking. I thought it was insightful, illuminating and well-written.
The Associate by John Grisham is the formulaic David v. Goliath story with Kyle McAvoy, President of the Yale Law Review, planning to take a public service job until shadowy figures blackmail him with a videotape that could destroy his future. So Kyle accepts a position the largest and most prestigious law firm, whose clients include a military contractor enmeshed in a $800 billion lawsuit concerning a newly-designed aircraft. Kyle can avoid exposure only if he feeds his new masters inside information on the case. Readers should be prepared for predictable twists, an ending with some unwarranted ambiguity and some unconvincing details. Still, Grisham is the master of this genre, and it was hard for me to put down.
Man in the Dark by Paul Auster: The death of his wife and a car accident have left the retired book critic August Brill confined to his house with his recently divorced daughter and an adult grandchild stricken with grief after the murder of her ex-boyfriend in Iraq, Bril attempts to stave off thoughts of death by telling himself bedtime stories. His tired mind weaves a tale that combines details of his life with the story of a man who, waking up in an alternate universe where 9/11 never happened and the 2000 election led to civil war, is sent on a mission to destroy the very person who has imagined him into existence. “Reactions to Paul Auster’s new novel may very well have come from alternate universes themselves. In one world, Ouster is a great American man of letters writing a postmodern response to the events of our time… In another world, his novel is yet another failed attempt at fictional engagement with the past eight years.”
*We are Rich by Dori Carter who seems to have an uncanny ability to pick just the right words to construct the most elegant sentences to portray powerful, poignant and hilarious insights about her neighbors in "Brigadoon by the Beach". I couldn't put the book down or sleep until I finished it and now can hardly wait to read it more slowly and savor each page. Scott Fitzgerald once said, "The Rich are very different from you and me". Carter shows us just how different they are from the rest of us--and from each other. From the cook's son who has the audacity to make it big in silicon valley to the gardener’s son who marries the boss' daughter, a new generation in Rancho Esperanza is displacing the old guard ('men with noses that look they've been sniffing Bordeaux'. You will never feel the same way about the top level of a Santa Barbara parking deck again.
A Saint on Death Row by Tom Cahill who is known for books like How the Irish Saved Civilization, The Gift of the Jews, and other erudite excursions into cultural history. He received rave reviews from Desmond Tutu and Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking for this book, but I didn’t enjoy the writing style that seemed lik a set of extended reflective, and unedited, journal entries. The 'saint' of the title is Dominique Green who was executed by the infamous Texas penal system and was obviously an impressive person who deserved more from life than he received.
The Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley is a slim guide for writers guide that provides basic common sense (write every day), basic grammar (book (the difference between simile and metaphor) or tips most would-be writers will have already read elsewhere (voices or POV). Mosley, author of the Easy Rawlins mysteries and several other books, sets out to show how we can write the first draft of a novel in a few months and to complete the project in year. The best point of the book for me was that writing every keeps your subconscious working on your project.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery brings Renée, an intelligent, philosophical concierge who poses as the stereotypical uneducated “super” to avoid suspicion from the building’s pretentious inhabitants together with Paloma, the adolescent daughter of a parliamentarian, who has decided to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday because she cannot stand living in the fishbowl of the vapid, superficial wealthy. The plot thins at moments and is replaced by intellectual discourse on culture, the ruling class, and the injustices done to the poor. The book was loved by most reviewers and half a million French readers because of its “intelligent humor, fine sentiments, an excellent literary and philosophical backdrop, good taste, sophistication and substance.” For me, the book was more impressive than enjoyable.
*Still Alice by first-time author Lisa Genova, who holds a Ph. D in neuroscience from Harvard is a compelling debut novel about a 50-year-old professor of cognitive psychology at Harvard when she begins a sudden descent into early onset Alzheimer's disease. Alice Howland is happily married with three grown children and a house on the Cape, is at the height of her career when she notices a forgetfulness creeping into her life. As confusion starts to cloud her thinking and her memory begins to fail her, she receives the most frightening of diagnosis. Alice struggles to maintain her lifestyle and live in the moment, even as her sense of self is being stripped away. Sometimes heartbreaking and inspiring and often terrifying, Still Alice describes what’s it must be like to literally lose your mind.
Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell: The Washington Posts says, “Making a hit man turned medical intern a sympathetic figure would be a tall order for most authors, but first-time novelist Bazell makes it look easy in this breezy and darkly comic suspense novel.” The Locanos, a mob family, take in 14-year-old Pietro Brwna (pronounced Browna) after a couple of thugs gun down the grandparents who raised him. Pietro pursues the killers and executes them a year later. David Locano recruits Pietro as a hit man. After more traumas, Pietro tries to make a break from his past by entering the witness protection program. Now known as Peter Brown, he eventually lands a position as a doctor at a decrepit Manhattan hospital, where by chance a former Mafia associate turns up and threatens to rat him out. The hero's sardonic narrative voice, coupled with Bazells use of flashbacks to backfill are a winning combination. Not great literature read, but a fun read.
Nothing to Lose is Lee Child's 12th Jack Reacher novel. Obviously Child is an accomplished writer, but despite generally positive reviews and a positive mention in the NYT, you wouldn’t know it from this book. Basically, the ex-military policeman hitchhikes into Colorado, where he finds himself crossing the metaphorical and physical line that divides the small towns of Hope and Despair. Despair lives up to its name and Reacher beats up or outsmarts several groups of miscreants who wish him ill while bedding the lovely police office in Hope. I’ve never read a book with so many incomplete sentences, and you shouldn’t waste your time.
How We Decide- by Jonah Lehrer is not as good as his previous book (reviewed earlier) but Lehrer holds his own with Malcolm Gladwell and other science writers who focus on the complexities of the human brain. "There isn't any spectacular revelation, unique viewpoint or knockout final summation," noted the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Washington Post felt that Lehrer "does little to integrate science's contradictory findings." Lehrer nonetheless illuminates the many processes involved in even the simplest decisions. For me, the first portion was very engaging, but the most endless review of the voluminous research and knowledge of the field became tiring before the book ended.
The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly is one of his most intricate plots in his 20th book and a professionally crafted crime thriller. Unlike many bestselling authors, Connelly still delivers. When L.A. lawyer Mickey Haller, star of The Lincoln Lawyer (2005), inherits the practice and caseload of a fellow defense attorney, who's been murdered, he focuses on the high-profile double-homicide case against a famous Hollywood producer. Mickey copes with his own demons and manages to unravel several interconnected mysteries.
The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen is about a 12-year-old mapmaking prodigy, who receives a call from the Smithsonian informing him that he has won the prestigious Baird award. He hops a freight train to accept the prize and meets a taciturn Winnebago, a homicidal preacher, a racist trucker and members of the secretive Megatherium Club. The book is probably a work of genius, with overwhelming marginal notes and drawings, but I found the middle third slow going. I suspect that T.S. is an autistic savant. One reviewer described it as a combination of Mark Twain, Thomas Pynchon, and Little Miss Sunshine.
Bob Johnansen, Leaders Make the Future, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2009
Bob Johansen, a Ph.D. in comparative religion, is the former President and a current Board member of the Institute for the Future (IFTF) - an independent think tank that has produced forecasts, scenarios and studies about the future for over 40 years. Johansen argues convincingly that in a world of increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA), leaders must learn new skills in order to make a better future. The identification of the “Ten New Leadership Skills for an Uncertain World” are less convincing. Here is a brief summary of Johansen’s list:
1) Maker instinct (leaders should approach their leadership with commitment and energy)
2) Clarity (leaders should be clear about what they are creating but flexible about how it gets done)
3) Dilemma Flipping (leaders should turn problems that can't be solved into opportunities)
4) Immersive Learning (leaders must be learners, especially learning by doing)
5) Bio-empathy (leaders understand, respect and learn from nature)
6) Constructive depolarization (leaders should be able to calm tense situations and bring people from different background together for constructive engagement)
7) Quiet transparency (leaders should be open and authentic about what matters without self-promotion)
8) Rapid Prototyping (leaders should work quickly to create early versions of innovations)
9) Smart mob organizing (leaders must create, engage and nurture social networks)
10)Commons creating (leaders stimulate, grow and nurture shared assets that benefit others)
The early section of the book was engaging and exciting. For me, it soon became ‘heavy going.’ Johansen explains the "what" and the "why" in much more detail than the "how."
He concludes with an interesting set of questions to ask yourself in evaluating your level of competence for the new leadership skills along with a self-assessment rating system.
The book is thoughtful and worthwhile, but not the best work to come out of the Institute for the Future.
Jim Taylor, Doug Harrison, and Stephen Kras, The New Elite: Inside the Minds of the Truly Wealthy,(New York, Amacom, 2008) 241 pages.
Scott Fitzgerald once observed to Ernest Hemingway, “the rich are very different from you and me." The New Elite is intended to explain Fitzgerald's koan about what makes the wealthy different. Early in 2008, 1% of Americans owned more than one third of the country's assets. (With valuations changing daily, who knows what the numbers are now) Approximately a million households have liquid assets of $5-10 million and constitute what the authors call “The New Elite.” They are different from most of us in that they have inordinate impact on business profitability, tax revenues, charitable contributions, and the overall economic health of the country.
If you recall the 1996 best selling, The Millionaire Next Door, you will be pleased to learn that the typical millionaire, described then as a hard working, frugal small business owner, has become wealthier and more common. From 1983 to 2005, the population of the United States grew by about one third. Even after adjusting for inflation, the number of millionaires grew by 168%, those with $5 million in net worth grew 353% and hecamillionaires (those with over $10 million) grew over 400%. Ronald Reagan once explained “trickle down economics” by saying, “a rising tide lifts all boats." Recent history has refuted this theory-- at least for smaller boats. We can, however, conclude that a rising tide does lift most yachts.
We may imagine that they are living in extreme luxury in multi-million dollar mansions, cruising on yachts and jetting off to exotic locales at a moment’s notice. They are a very important demographic, and they do have more money to spend than ordinary mortals. In "The New Elite", the authors reveal what drives our country's most powerful and influential class, what they want, where they shop and how they really spend their money.
The authors contend that accurately understanding this group is critical for success in the marketing, sales, product development, branding and advertising fields. They dispel the myth that most of the rich have inherited their money and reveal the socioeconomic factors behind their self-made rises to success. Exploring how the rich spend their money and what influences their buying decisions, the authors identify the five classes of the newly wealthy with distinct reactions to the value and purpose of money—neighbors, wrestlers, patrons, mavericks and directors—groups that greatly differ in their lifestyles and financial attitudes. Charts and graphs throughout distill key data and make it possible to skim the book and still comprehend the main concepts.
Based on thorough research (survey of 1800) and extensive access to the wealthy, "The New Elite" is must reading for consumer marketers and interesting reading for the rest of us. Except for a few simple precepts (work hard, own your own business, and earn more that you spend), this book will not tell you how to become “rich and famous, “but it will help you understand more about the thinking and behaviors of those who are.
Overall assessment: 4.0 Reviewed by Robert M. Fulmer, co-author, The Leadership Advantage, for Graziadio Business Review.
The Leadership Code, Dave Ulrich, Norm Smallwood and Kate Sweetman, HBR Press, 2009
Is there a “Da Vinci Code” for leaders? Ulrich, Smallwood and Sweetman purport to have found “The Leadership Code,” As they point out, “This leadership code, like any other code, provides both structure and guidance, and helps you know not only what to do to be a better individual leader, but also how to build better leadership capability.” Since there are probably “half a million books on leaders and leadership, we turned to recognized experts in the field who had…already spent years sifting through the evidence and developing their own theories.” Since I was honored to be included in their acknowledgements, my review may be somewhat biased. (But if they appreciate my work on leadership skills and development, they are clearly brilliant people, right?)
From their literature review and body of interviews conducted, they concluded that 60 to 70 percent of leadership effectiveness would be contained in the leadership code. Their analysis and synthesis result in a framework that they believe is accurate, logical, and useful. While many academics will turn up their noses at the lack of elegance in their research design, the book is likely to pass a more important test: perceived value and relevance to leaders on the firing line!
The Leadership Code essentially breaks down into five deceptively simple rules:
Rule 1: Shape the Future. This rule is embodied in the strategist dimension of the leader. Strategists not only envision a future, they help create it . As practical futurists, they figure out where the organization needs to go to succeed, they test these ideas pragmatically against current resources (money, people, organizational capabilities), and they work with others to figure out how to get from the present to the desired future.
Rule 2: Make Things Happen. The execution dimension of leadership focuses on the question, “How can we ensure that we get to where we want to go?” Executors translate strategy into action. Executors understand how to make change happen, to assign accountability, to know which key decisions to take and which to delegate, and to make sure that teams work well together.
Rule 3: Engage Today’s Talent. Leaders who optimize talent today answer the question, “Who goes with us on our business journey?” After getting “the right people on the bus, talent managers generate intense personal, professional, and organizational loyalty.
Rule 4: Build the Next Generation. Leaders who are human capital developers answer the question, “Who stays and sustains the organization for the next generation?” Just as good parents invest in helping their children succeed, human capital developers help future leaders to be successful.
Rule 5: Invest in Yourself. At the heart of the leadership code—literally and figuratively—is personal proficiency. Effective leaders cannot be reduced to what they know and do. Who they are as human beings has everything to do with how much they can accomplish with and through other people.
Leaders are learners: from success, failure, assignments, books, classes, people, and life itself
The RBL Group has developed both self assessment and 360 degree feedback exercises to help readers know how well they exemplify The Leadership Code. If interested, go to www.leadershipcodebook.com for a short video lesson from Dave Ulrich that will help understand results of the short leadership code self-assessment contained in the book. The firm has also developed a one-day seminar to help leaders utilize the feedback they receive from the “Leadership Code 360.”
The book is well-written, engaging and pragmatic. Cracking the leadership code might help you take your leadership to a higher level—and you don’t have to worry about crazed monks trying to stop you from sharing your insights.
Overall assessment: 5.0 Reviewed by Robert M. Fulmer, co-author, The Leadership Advantage, for Graziadio Business Review.
By Gary Hamel (with Bill Breen)
Harvard Business School Press, October, 2007
Recommended by Robert Fulmer, PhD, Distinguished Visiting Professor
Upon first meeting Gary Hamel in 1999, I asked, “Since you were an inventor of ‘strategic intent,’ what is your personal statement of strategic intent?” Without hesitation, he responded, "I want to be to innovation what Ed Deming was to quality." In his new book, The Future of Management, the bestselling author of the Leading the Revolution and Competing for the Future (with C. K. Prahalad), moves a step closer to achieving this career objective.
In my opinion, the title may be somewhat misleading: The book is less about the future of management and more about the importance of “reinventing the concept of management” by being innovative.
Chapter two is largely spent on recognizing the limitations of traditional management. Much of this is old news. In 1977, Abraham Zaleznic published a classic essay outlining key differences between the historic emphasis on management and an emerging need for the qualities of leadership. Of course, Hamel is building the case that innovation is more important than the budgeting and controls associated with traditional management. This is clearly true, but hardly an ‘innovative' insight. To be fair, Gary Hamel (with Bill Breen) writes creatively and shows an enviable ability to present familiar concepts in unique and interesting ways.
The book’s second section, "Management Innovation in Action," presents three case chapters that showcase companies considered to be true management innovators. Whole Foods is described as having “the most engaged employees of any major retailer.” W. L. Gore has been called the world's most innovative company, and has one of the most effective organizations to be found. Though young and untested, Google has developed a management system that values adaptability above everything else. As Hamel points out, “these companies aren't perfect or invincible, but they are heralds of a new management order—ongoing experiments in management innovation from which we can learn lessons both salutary and cautionary."
Section three outlines "The Principles of Management Innovation." Key chapters include:
- Escaping the Shackles: How can leaders challenge long-standing management orthodoxies that constrain creative thinking?
- Embracing New Principles: What principles can be discovered by looking at insights from the life sciences, market economies, democracies, religious faith, and dynamic cities?
- Learning from the Fringe: What lessons can be learned by listening to "positive deviants and looking for people and practices that are eccentric yet effective”?
The book's final section is about getting started on the process of becoming a management innovator and building a new future of management. For me, the key insight was the importance of "working from the future backwards." This isn't a new concept, but it is an important aspect of thinking strategically and being innovative.
No one is better than Gary Hamel at saying things that are challenging, provocative, and creative. He is able to see what everyone else sees and then to think about it in new and intriguing ways. He is insightful, articulate, and an exemplar of innovative questioning.
This is an important book. In my opinion, The Future of Management is better than Hamel’s Leading the Revolution, but not quite to the standard of Competing for the Future—still one of my favorite management books of all time. Neither he nor C.K. Prahalad have written as well independently as they did together. Yet, they both continue to make significant contributions to the understanding of strategic thinking.