Monday, February 27, 2006

Now, Discover Your Strengths
(Marcus Buckingham & Donald Clifton, abridged, 3 CDs)
Although most business books reek of unreflective cliches, this book deserves to inherit the mantle of honor from Peter Drucker. Taking a page from Drucker, this book argues that a person should find their talents/strengths, and organize their life around the things they do effortlessly and well. The writing is clear, the arguments cogent, and for once, the mobilization of personality typologies is not pure astrology. I'm sure that additional research could refine their 34 types, but the research sounds like it stands head-and-shoulders above the Myers-Brigg typology, which really only illuminates the distinction between introverts and extroverts. By using their type-casting questionnaire, there's an opportunity to more clearly tag people in terms of what they do best, and that information could greatly extend how to create functioning teams. I was motivated to buy the hard back of this by the fact that each copy includes a secret code that enables the purchaser to take the Gallup StrengthFinder(TM). After taking the test, I've come to see that Buckingham is a much better writer than methodologist: His vision is compelling, but the inputs and outputs of the online test cannot live up to the clarity of his fundamental insight. The test questions are less well posed than the sentences in his book; as outputs, one only learns 5 labels, such as Ideation, Strategic, Input, Command, Activator, for which additional fees would be required to extract their deeper significance. It's not ridiculous to suppose that whole books could be written up on powerful combinatoric recipes for success. With 34 choose 5 options, that would mean that 278,256 you-successful-combo-you-books would be generated.

Friday, February 24, 2006

American Gods
(Neil Gaiman, unabridged, 20 CDs)
I enjoyed this, although I didn't feel it was as sparkling as Anansi Boys. This precursor to Anansi explores similar themes: the twin worlding that enables Gaiman's profane characters to embody god-like talents and gifts, while nevertheless being shlumps, con artists, and archetypical shysters. At points, the story shines, especially when the characters wrangle with one another, but at other points, the pace felt more like a slog than a dance. I definitely wouldn't have read this on paper, because when a book begins to stall, it just lies on a table, clogged behind a speed hump that never gets hurdled. When listening to a book, my attention wanders away when the story isn't fully engaging. The engine of the audible treadmill is that it will continue looping, even when my feet scarcely lift from the ground. Soon enough, the rough patch is surpassed, and there's a chance to take in the next scene, and my mind weaves back into the threads of the tale. (Special treat: The 20th CD includes a lengthy interview with Neil Gaiman, exploring how he built the book out of his fascinations with middle America.)

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Lonely Planet One People: many journeys
(Lonely Planet, 284pp)
Definitely worth 15 minutes to page through. A couple of things I noticed-- 1) Women in several photos didn't look "feminine" in the stereotypical sense, and I would double-take to see if they were transvestites; 2) Dani people in New Guinea 'smoke' their ancestors, so that the ancient forebears look like a mummified piece of beef jerky. This is a much better book than the earlier volume of photos from around the world , One Planet.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Planet Simpson
(Chris Turner, abridged, 10 CDs)
If this is abridged, I wonder what spare kitchen sink stocks the full book. I had been a Groening 'Life in Hell' fan for years before the Simpsons debuted in 1989, so I didn't feel compelled to see the show. This lack in my cultural sophistication was addressed several years ago, when a grab bag came my way with about 100 episodes, scrunched down to little downloadable movies. I mention my lack of deep exposure to the Simpsons to help explain how I avoided feeling too profound a sense of sadness while listening to this book. It's quite embarrassing to be exposed to the ingenuous enthusiasm with which the author firehoses old TV episodes. I listened to the whole thing because: 1- The quotes from the Simpsons were very funny; 2- My opinions mostly overlap with the author's, so that I could listen with agreement, even though it seemed almost random to toss in culture wars, Wilco, DIY punk culture, and Bush-bashing. This swarm of neuronal activity, blasted at the tube, does not inspire, although it somehow held my attention throughout.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Devil in the Details : Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood
(Jennifer Traig, unabridged, 6 CDs)
The author has written a fascinating account of her life with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). She was put behind the 8-ball by OCD, as it opportunistically linked into her incipient attempts to practice Jewish rituals. Certain Jewish dietary obligations (kashrut) can become quite obsessive, esp in preparations for passover. Traig's writing is usually quite funny (she also published a funny book of tchotchkes called Judaikitsch). Her humor runs the risk of veering to the excessively yoke-y, but I enjoyed every chapter.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises
(Charles Kindleberger, unabridged, 10 CDs)
Although the prose is occasionally dry, and the historical panorama can seem to be over-long, the book summarizes an astonishing range of bubbles (up to, but not including, the tech stock market crash of 2000). The author recounts bubble upon bubble, with a cyclicity that seems to imply that they occurred historically every single lifespan (a doozy about once every 40 years). He summarizes the arguments against the monetarist doctrine that the 1929 Depression was caused by government mismanagement. The summary is too quick to evaluate the details of the dispute, although I'd like to believe that Milton Friedman got this wrong. The best summary of why monetarism fails is Kindleberger's claim that no matter what one specifies as the money supply (M1 or M7, or even a bigger M'), human nature will devise a means to speculate in a less-constrained medium, which will drive the booms and busts. In the Making of modern economics, the claim was advanced that only Hayek had a cogent explanation of what caused the Depression. I still can't evaluate what is the best rationalization, but I'll go out on a limb and bet that economists haven't fully pegged this yet. If I were forced to choose between this book and Irrational Exuberance, I'd recommend Shiller, simply because he's briefer, and a little more theoretical. The history here is quite comprehensive, although it mainly demonstrates that people never seem to learn from the past.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Teacher Man: A memoir
(Frank McCourt, unabridged, 9 CDs)
I dearly enjoyed Angela's Ashes, but found the sequel 'Tis to be insignificant and not worth finishing. This book completes the trilogy, and 'tis much better than the last installment, although not as mesmerizing as Angela's Ashes. The reason it's so much better than 'Tis can be explained by the fact that McCourt came into his own as a teacher, and he clearly loved his job. One of his great strengths as a teacher traces to his vivid recollections of his own childhood, his willingness to disclose that childhood to his students, and his power to alchemize the tedium and oppression inflicted upon kids into a great story. His pedagogy was very playful, encouraging students to set cookbook recipes to music, write excuse notes for historical villains, and throw their hearts into their craft. (Note: the 9th CD actually contains excerpts from McCourt's two previous books. I suppose this is in place of the typical "Author interview" which pads the final disc in audiobooks).
In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr.
(Wil Haygood, unabridged, 17 cassettes; skimmed the last 7)
It's kind of hard to get Sammy Davis Jr's life to come into focus; he was a driven entertainer, a man who worked in a trio with Will Maston and his father for the first half of his life, carrying the 2 older vaudevillians along in his torrential burst of energy. The parts of his life that were most dramatic are well-covered here: his 1954 car accident, which caused him to lose an eye. In spite of the great damage to his face, his main concern was whether his legs were fine, since they were his source of livelihood. Once he knew that he would dance again, he accepted the damage without bitterness and regret. A few weeks after he left the hospital, he impulsively converted to Judaism, although here, the author clarifies that there had been no previous religious training in his life, so in a strict sense, there was an adoption of religion, rather than a conversion. The performer's motives were intimatley connected to his mimickry, which drove him to assimilate with the religion of the powerful in Hollywood. I started to skim after this, although Davis's relationship to Sinatra was always fascinating. The adulation and loyalty that he lavished upon Sinatra is a study in sycophancy. The end of his life was sad, as his damaged liver took him down.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions
(Ben Mezrich, unabridged, 8:04 -- quit after 3 hours)
The author, formerly a writer of fictional thrillers, decided he hated "the fact checking" aspect of journalism, and managed to bump into a 'genius' MIT student who was gambling in Vegas,and he was intrigued with the kids report of how he was winning with Black Jack card-counting techniques. The writing is pedestrian, but still has some grip as the story of math geeks who win through calculation (not the highest calibre mental trick). This book is bedeviled by the non-fiction label, which is now about as sullied a term as 'intern' post-Lewinsky. See the review in the Boston Globe, where the author admits to his impatience with factual reporting. As an example of the inauthenticities in the prose, there's a reference to an erstwhile MIT math professor, "a former math prodigy" who had been one of the youngest admits in MIT history, matriculating at the age of 16 (p39). Since I personally know two people who started MIT at 16, it's likely that almost every class has one or two of these 'startingly' rare birds. House odds that most of this book is baloney, bubbled through a bong pipe, banged out under pressure once the advance money had been spent.

Friday, February 10, 2006

iCon Steve Jobs, the Greatest Second Act in the History of Business
(Jeffrey S. Young & Barton Biggs; unabridged, 3 CDs)
Jobs once said something like "A's hire other A's, but B's hire C's". This book, written by a couple of B-grade journalists, can't possibly convey the intensity & insanity that drive Steve Jobs. Nevertheless, the book delivers some value by collating the various strands of Jobs' multiple incarnations (Blue Box vendor, Apple founder, NeXT hypester, Pixar purchaser, and iPod genie). The book wraps all this up without ever achieving depth, and it fails pretty completely to give any sense of Jobs personality. There are factoids of note: Jef Raskin wanted the Macintosh to be mouse-less and graphics-free; Alan Kay is the person who recommended Jobs travel to San Rafael to look at Lucas' computer group; when laying people off at Pixar (and NeXT), Jobs never gave severance. The Second Coming of Steve Jobs is a much better book, although it ends before the iPod -- taking a page from these guys, that author should re-release his book, with an added chapter, and call it the Third Coming.
I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight
(Margaret Cho, unabridged, 6 CDs, punt after 1)
Margaret Cho's funny, and rude, and intent on sticking it to the Man. I listened to the first CD, but realized that this was not for me. Rock on, Cho, even though I'm not your target demographic.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Great Book of Chocolate
(David Lebovitz, 164pp)
A trove of delicious revelations, described by a fanatical devotee of the sacred bean. I learned many fascinating pointers from this small Ten Speed book. The author's a former pastry chef at Chez Panisse, who divides his time between SF and Paris. After reading his chapter on Paris, as the paradise of chocolates, you will realize that this author has the passion to live his dream. I have learned a lot about beans, and am now marching through Michel Cluizel's dark secrets. I became determined to track down some of the highly praised contraband, described by Lebovitz as the supreme chocolate experience, made by Chocovic (near Barcelona).

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Against Depression
(Peter Kramer, abridged, 5 CDs)
An interesting and vigorous argument about how unreflective and romantic notions of depression block us from seeing at as a true disease. Kramer writes with nuanced sensitivity, in spite of his role as a cheerleader for pharmaceutical solutions (Listening to Prozac). His anger at the trite assumption that van Gogh or Kierkegaard was profound, only because of their melancholy, is justified. It's false to believe that a little depressive suffering is ennobling. The only point I would quibble over: Kramer doesn't seem to fully appreciate that suffering, while in each particular instance it may be evitable, is inescapable in the large. As such, the experiences of suffering (whether from a broken leg, bad kidneys, or depression) can create occasions for deeper connections to life. That does not mean that psychiatrists should ever allow patients to suffer toward an "insight," nor that we should treat melancholy as a profound window on truth. Instead, depression is a particular form of pain, a psychopathology that we should do all that is possible to diminish.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

(Leon Weiseltier, abridged, narrated by Theodore Bikel, 4 cassettes)
Excellent discussion of the Kaddish, from the personal point of view of the author as he went through a year of mourning for his father, beginning in 1996. The writing does not try to characterize this one son's relationship with his father; rather, Weiseltier probes the historical texts that illuminate the Jewish tradition, and then he discusses how those readings align with his own wrestling. I had been very impressed with the interview he had with Abigail Pogrebin in her book. In that interview, he asked if she had read his 'turgid' book, Kaddish. With that as a wrapper, I felt more comfortable listening to an abridgement, which is superbly read by Theodore Bikel. Two themes of particular value to me stood out in this book: 1- The Kaddish emerged as a practice for mourners in the 12th to 14th century; and 2- The practice of saying the Kaddish brings about a spiritual redemption for the parent, not because of any biological tie, nor by virtue of some performative act of penance or mercantile exchange. Instead, Weiseltier argues with clarity that the perfomance of the ritual obligation brings merit to the parent, because, eo ipso, the son who can perform the ritual effectively demonstrates the father's success in raising a Jew who acts with understanding and knowledge of his heritage.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

(Louis Sachar, unabridged, 4 CDs)
A pleasant and fun fantasy, which transforms the schoolyard hardship story into a prison breakout.