Monday, December 14, 2009

Last Man Standing: The Ascent of Jamie Dimon and JPMorgan Chase

Respect. Duff McDonald’s new book is titled, Last Man Standing: The Ascent of Jamie Dimon and JPMorgan Chase. This is an engaging and readable story of a talented and intriguing personality whose leadership of a major financial institution seems to have beaten all competitors. Dimon comes across in Last Man Standing as a hard worker, who digs into details deeply enough to gain insight and understanding. Rarely one to suffer fools gladly, his blunt communication style leaves little doubt about the meaning behind his messages. As a leader he’s strongly supportive of those talented people who work with him, and wants to be questioned and challenged in making key decisions. McDonald calls close attention to the impact of people decisions, especially the cost of the decision of Sandy Weill to fire Dimon. Throughout Last Man Standing, I came away with the perspective that Dimon respects others, and prefers honesty over anything else. While bordering at times on hagiography, Last Man Standing conveys the impact that one leader can have on a large organization, and how sticking to principles can lead to long term success. Every time I started to think he is too good to be true, an example of his success made me think he is really quite good at what he does. On top of his business success, Dimon places high priority on his family life, and that aspect of his life comes across in the book as normal and functional. When I finished the book, I thought of Jamie Dimon as the Winston Churchill of banking. Any reader with an interest in finance or leadership will find much to enjoy about Last Man Standing.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase Last Man Standing from

A Good Fall

Struggles. The twelve short stories in Ha Jin’s new collection titled, A Good Fall, present snapshots of the Chinese immigrant experience in Flushing, Queens, New York. The characters are mostly in transition, from one type of life in China to a different life in New York. Relationships are strained, expectations are mismatched, and struggle seems constant. Young people and old are finding ways to adjust to new lives in a new world. Many short story writers sacrifice some component of their fiction because of the efficiency of the medium. Ha Jin develops his characters in ways that bring them to robust life. His descriptive language provides just enough color to create real places. The plot structure works for each story. In all, his writing is well-crafted, and the stories in A Good Fall will bring pleasure to most readers, and a resonance for any immigrant.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase A Good Fall from

Eating: A Memoir

Tasty. I read Jason Epstein’s Eating: A Memoir, in two seatings, with three interruptions to head to the kitchen to rustle up a tasty something or other to satisfy the appetite triggered by my reading. Epstein, a former Random House editor, loves to eat and cooks with a panache that comes across in his conversational recipes. His measurements will drive scientific cooks bonkers: a little of this, not too much of that. His point is that we learn to cook by cooking and tasting. His random walk through meals of his life introduces many famous characters with whom Epstein has dined. They add color to the narrative, just as table mates for any of us increase our appreciation of the food we enjoy together. Eating is quick to read, and for most readers will be followed by a good dose of some favorite food.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Eating: A Memoir from

The Hunted

Brains. Alex Konevitch, the protagonist of Brian Haig’s new novel, The Hunted, beats his adversaries with brainpower over brawn. Konevitch built up a successful business in Russia until a former KGB employee stole it out from under him. Alex and his wife flee Russia, trailed by assassins. A complicit FBI director cooperates with Russian bureaucrats who want Alex brought back to Russia for “justice” in exchange for the advance of American interests. Haig presents a fast paced tale in The Hunted, which is based on a true story. Every setback leads to another advance, and Alex is both talented and effective as he strikes back against his enemies. While this novel is a departure for Haig from his series featuring JAG lawyer Sean Drummond, it shares one common element: a protagonist larger than life, and in some ways too good to be true. The Hunted provides thrilling entertainment that most readers will enjoy.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Hunted from

The Professional

Passion. Robert B. Parker’s 37th installment in the Spenser series, The Professional, represents a solid addition to the collection. As a regular reader, I count on Parker to provide fine dialog, character development, and a plot that retains momentum to the end. Each of my expectations was met in The Professional, and both Hawk and Susan continued to develop along with Spenser in this offering which leads to reflections about passion. I think of a long running fiction series like this one as analogous to a television series: not every installment is a block buster, but when the episode ended, I felt like I hadn’t wasted too much time. Any reader looking for a quick novel that goes down easily is likely to enjoy The Professional.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Professional from

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Case of the Missing Servant

Chubby. Tarquin Hall’s mystery novel, The Case of the Missing Servant, introduces readers to a memorable detective, Vish Puri. Known to old friends and family as Chubby, Vish Puri runs Delhi's Most Private Investigators Ltd., from which he and his staff spend most of their time performing investigations on potential marriage candidates to be sure that families aren’t surprised by skeletons in the closets of a bride or groom. While part of The Case of the Missing Servant uncovers sensitive information about a bridegroom, the bulk of this mystery involves the disappearance of a servant and Puri’s efforts on behalf of his client to prove that he did not murder the missing girl. Vish Puri has the grey matter to solve a case with the skill of a Hercule Poirot, the ability to draw information from others along the lines of Mma Ramotswe, and a distinctly 21st century Delhi temperament. Readers who love India or mysteries will enjoy reading The Case of the Missing Servant.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Case of the Missing Servant from

A Rumpole Christmas

Bittersweet. There are five enjoyable short stories in a collection from the late John Mortimer titled, A Rumpole Christmas. Fans of the PBS series Rumpole of the Bailey will recognize a familiar cast of character from Horace Rumpole himself, to his wife Hilda (“She Who Must Be Obeyed”), to his chambers colleagues and recalcitrant judges, as well as charming rogues. Each story is set around Christmas and presents a perfect mix and the familiar and the new. John Mortimer died in early 2009, and while these stories had been published individually in English periodicals, this is the first time they appear in a collection. I had a bittersweet reaction as I finished the last story with the realization that I may have read all the Rumpole that has been written. So, I drained the glass of my equivalent of Chateau Thames Embankment and poured another, offering a toast of thanks to Mortimer for creating such a great character. Any reader will find something to like in each of the five stories in A Rumpole Christmas.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase A Rumpole Christmas from

Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-time Eater

Candid. Frank Bruni’s memoir is titled, Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater. His direct and punchy writing style reveals aspects of his life that most individuals would be too embarrassed to discuss, let alone publish. He presents his insecurities, a serious eating disorder, and lots of quirky behavior that draws readers in, made me laugh often, and by the end of the book, made me feel like this Frank Bruni is an ok guy. An accomplished journalist, he was recently the food critic for The New York Times. Born Round covers that part of his life, which involved lots of eating, as well as his early life, which also involved lots of eating. For much of his life, he’s struggled to keep his weight down. The stories of meals and family members and relationships are hilarious and sometimes sad. The end result is a finely written memoir that reveals with candor a fascinating smorgasbord of the ups and downs of life. Those readers who enjoy eating will especially appreciate Born Round.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Born Round from

Hothouse Orchid

Bodies. Midway thorough Stuart Woods latest Holly Barker mystery titled, Hothouse Orchid, I remembered why I had a mixed reaction to an earlier book in this series: there are just too many dead bodies. One murder or two can be enough for most mysteries. Beyond two, it’s just gratuitous violence that distracts from solving the mystery. In this installment, Holly is forced to take a vacation from her busy CIA job in Virginia, and she returns home to Orchid Beach, just in time to meet up with figures from her past, and a local crime spree. Holly Barker is a very interesting character, but Hothouse Orchid offers a weak vehicle to showcase her personality and skills. Woods fans will read out of habit, other readers may want to think twice.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
Click here to purchase Hothouse Orchid from

True Blue

False. The plot of David Baldacci’s new novel, True Blue, moved quickly and provided lots of suspense. While I kept wanting to savor the development of the interesting characters, I found that with every passing chapter, they became more cardboard-like rather than human. Set in Washington, DC, two sisters are featured: one the police chief, the other, a former cop who’s being released from jail as the story opened. A hundred or more pages could have been edited out of this novel without much loss. Readers looking for a thrill will find some pleasure here, but those who want more depth to characters, should look beyond True Blue for something else.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
Click here to purchase True Blue from

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Last Night in Twisted River

Loss. I didn’t appreciate how much I missed reading a John Irving novel until I plunged into his latest, Last Night in Twisted River. Sweeping back and forth across northeastern landscapes and decades in time, a multi-generational cast of characters deal with loss and extend the reach of love across the miles and years. In a delightfully quirky way, part of the voice of the novel is a writer constructing the way to best tell the story, ending up with the first sentence. What Irving does so well is construct: he writes careful, beautiful sentences; he builds a character level by level until a reader feels the depth; and he delights and surprises us with the way the plot unfolds. Irving is one of the finest architects of finely written, accessible fiction. Last Night in Twisted River is a worthy addition to a formidable oeuvre. Any reader looking for hours of reading pleasure that will immerse you into the lives of interesting people will likely enjoy Last Night in Twisted River.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase Last Night in Twisted River from

The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life

Obsession. Alice Schroeder’s comprehensive biography of the sage of Omaha is titled, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life. Rather than hauling around the 976 page hardcover, I purchased this title for my SONY e-Reader, and picked it up and put it down dozens of times over the past year. I found The Snowball to be best devoured a few snowflakes at a time. Schroeder covers Buffett’s personal and business life at a level of detail that bordered on “too much information.” From a personal perspective, Buffett comes across as a quirky and needy person whose demands on others came across as unreasonable and excessive. Buffett’s obsession with making money comes across as something he focused on so completely that when he needed to pay attention to other areas of life, he seemed lost and confused. Any reader with an interest in Warren Buffett will find the anecdotes and insight on these pages to be a joy to read.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Snowball from

How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities

Ideas. John Cassidy’s new book, How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities is a call for reality based economics. This is a book of ideas, along the lines of Economics 201. Cassidy explains in plain language the ideas behind lots of economic theories, and how some dominant theories have come in and out of favor. I especially enjoyed his exploration of rational irrationality. For those readers who are looking for an understanding of the context in which the recent financial crisis occurred, there’s a viewpoint expressed here that shows the consequences of the expectation that markets are self-correcting. How Markets Fail is well written, and will provide every reader with some increased level of understanding.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase How Markets Fail from

The Upside of Turbulence

Agility. Donald Sull’s new book is titled, The Upside of Turbulence: Seizing Opportunity in an Uncertain World. Sull makes a great case for building an organization that’s agile enough to exploit opportunities rapidly, and one that can absorb the inevitable setbacks that face every organization. The style of writing reflects Sull’s current job as a professor at London Business School. The content reflects both the case approach he learned at Harvard, and the clear communication and analytic approach he learned at McKinsey and in doing leveraged buyouts with Clayton & Dubilier. The result: a readable presentation, packed with cases and examples that illustrate his points clearly. The Upside of Turbulence provides interesting reading to general managers, and will be of particular interest to any manager involved in strategy, innovation, or development.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Upside of Turbulence from

The Wrecker

Competence. There’s a certain comfort to the reliability that a reader can count on from any Clive Cussler novel: the hero is competent and will succeed by the end; the villain is evil and can be a worthy adversary; the action moves quickly and usually involves incredible feats by many characters. A new novel, The Wrecker, fits the formula well, and will entertain those readers who can overlook the doggedness of the formula. Protagonist Isaac Bell (reprised from the earlier novel, The Chase) is the son of a prominent New England banker who works as a private detective. In The Wrecker, Bell is hired by the head of the Southern Pacific Railroad following a number of events that destroyed rail lines and facilities. While readers know the identity of The Wrecker early on, it takes a while for Bell to put all the puzzle pieces together in a mad scramble across the country and back several times. Along the way, there’s murder, deception, engineering feats, and loads of competence. Cussler fans will want more novels featuring Isaac Bell. Readers looking for a few hours of entertainment and who have a willingness to overlook the clumsiness of a formula novel, are likely to enjoy The Wrecker.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Wrecker from