Thursday, February 25, 2010

Googled: The End of the World As We Know It

Efficiency. Ken Auletta’s book, Googled: The End of the World As We Know It, presents the creation and explosive growth of the company that is also a verb: Google. This is a well-written account of the people and the culture, and shows off fine writing following significant access to key people. This is a story of the impact of efficiency: smart engineers who make things better. The success from their work is obvious; the fallout for others, especially traditional media companies (that Auletta knows well), would be less well done in the hands of a different author. Auletta excels at description, examples and insight. Googled melds personal stories with corporate culture and competitive behavior in ways that will interest many readers.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?

Socratic. After reading Michael Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing To Do?, I found it easy to understand why his Harvard class is so popular. Sandel makes philosophy feel alive as he poses tough questions about who we are as individuals and within a society and who we strive to be. This is not a finger-pointing presentation of moral philosophy; it’s a challenging presentation of questions that we ask ourselves and how others have answered them, leaving gaps and consequences. Many of our current political conflicts relate to matters of virtue and the common good: financial bailouts, taxation, health care, war, national defense. Using Sandel’s questions as a guide, we can explore the ways in which we formulate answers both as individuals and within a society.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters

Competence. The world came to know Chesley B. Sullenberger on January 15, 2009 when he guided the engineless US Airways Flight 1549 onto the Hudson River and all 155 persons aboard were rescued. Sully’s book, Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, informs readers about who this pilot is, where he came from, how he achieved such competence, and how he’s tried to live his life. For readers who want to know more about what happened to Flight 1549 on 1/15/09, this book will make your heart race as Sully relates the second-by-second action. Readers who are inspired or motivated by learning about how others have become competent and how they choose to live will find chapters in Highest Duty that will lead to high admiration for Sully, and inspiration to be like him.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Engagement. Dan Pink has written another insightful book, this time taking on the subject of motivation. In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Pink highlights the disconnect between typical management practices and scientific evidence about human biology and behavior. After presenting a scientific basis for his approach, he proposes that we upgrade ourselves and our workforces to autonomy, mastery and purpose. The outcome will be greater engagement. He also provides a toolkit with suggestions on what to do next to move in the direction he proposes. While many readers feel one’s own intrinsic motivation, it can be hard in some workplaces to see movement away from a carrot and stick approach toward greater autonomy, mastery and purpose. Drive may help readers transform workplaces into environments that get more work done, better, by more satisfied workers.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Showing Up for Life: Thoughts on the Gifts of a Lifetime

Philosophy. Each chapter in Bill Gates, Sr.’s book, Showing Up for Life: Thoughts on the Gifts of a Lifetime, conveys a tidbit of wisdom, a family story, an anecdote that provides a building block in the development of one’s personal philosophy. Each of us decides how we choose to live, and in Showing Up for Life, Mr. Gates makes it clear that some of those decisions are as simple as deciding whether to be present or not. Most decisions, though, involve a sense of purpose or duty. After reading this book, it’s easy to understand why Bill Gates, Jr. looks up to his father, and also easy to understand why philanthropy is of such importance to this family. Any reader who enjoys listening to the wisdom of elders will enjoy this book, and every parent will find something on these pages to emulate in one’s own family.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Friday, February 19, 2010

Ordinary Thunderstorms

Stormy. There’s nothing ordinary about the thunder than rains on protagonist Adam Kindred’s life in William Boyd’s new thriller, Ordinary Thunderstorms. It takes a powerful suspension of disbelief to go along with Boyd as he transforms Adam from an academic climatologist to a homeless fugitive. Boyd’s writing is so fine that a reader’s disbelief remains suspended as Adam finds ways to survive and somewhat thrive under trying conditions. The descriptive language brings every scene to life, and the development of each character kept me engaged and interested throughout the novel. Ordinary Thunderstorms provides hours of entertaining reading, and enough unresolved by the end to expect and savor a rewarding sequel.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer

Locavore. I found myself both laughing and wincing as I read Novella Carpenter’s Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. Any reader wanting to glimpse into a way of living that’s more likely than not to be opposite from one’s own will find a lot of reading pleasure here. Carpenter describes growing food as a squatter on a lot next to the apartment she rented, and also keeping bees, raising rabbits and even raising two pigs, all in the city of Oakland, California. Dumpster diving three times a week at gourmet restaurants to find food for the hogs made me wince. The smells of the place also came alive for me, and made me glad that I don’t live next door. Humor and lightheartedness reign throughout, and Carpenter tells a light story with grace and ease. Farm City may lead some readers to reconsider eating locally.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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True Compass

Perseverance. I read memoirs for two reasons: to gain insight about our human condition through the lives of others, and to learn something about an individual who is interesting and engaging. Ted Kennedy’s memoir, True Compass, provides reading pleasure on both fronts. As to insight, this memoir presents ample examples of the ways in which perseverance builds character: every time Ted was knocked down, he got up again. His resilience and hard work appear throughout the memoir. The extended Kennedy family lives with intense public attention and scrutiny, and True Compass provides an inside perspective on how that played out over a lifetime. Sailing and the sea feature prominently throughout Ted’s life and in this memoir. The lion of the Senate lived a full, rich and imperfect life. Reading his story from his point of view brings to life dramatic moments in modern American history and allows all readers to increase their understanding of this person and those times.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Unnamed

Surrender. I’ve never read a novel like Joshua Ferris’ new book, The Unnamed. Readers are likely to love or hate it; I’m closer to the love end, thanks to Ferris’ fine writing. Protagonist Tim Farnsworth suffers from a mysterious (unnamed) disease that compels him to walk until he’s exhausted. His wife, Jane, brings meaning to the worse part of “for better or for worse” as she drops whatever she’s doing to rescue Tim from wherever he’s collapsed after his forced walking. The Unnamed presents marriage from many perspectives and with great skill, especially on the ways in which love endures all, and the sacrifice one can make out of love for another. Tim ends up surrendering his career as a high-powered lawyer because of this disease. His daughter Becka cares for him while Jane works, and their relationship provides a strong motif in the novel. Ferris deals with all aspects of surrender in The Unnamed: to illness, to the loss of work, to not being able to live with the one you love. The transformation of Tim and his family in this novel will leave all readers thinking about identity and what changes when one surrenders to forces that are uncontrollable.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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The Birthday Present

Desire. Many mystery novels are so formulaic that they can try the patience of a reader who wants one’s intelligence respected. Ruth Rendell respects her readers, and in her novel, The Birthday Present, written under pen name Barbara Vine, she structures the story with great respect for thoughtful readers. We know what happened within a few opening pages; the pleasure comes from reading the next three hundred pages as she unfolds the context and meaning of it all. The narrator is the brother-in-law of an ambitious rising member of Parliament, Ivor Tesham. An accident makes a sex escapade turn disasterous for Ivor and others. With delicacy and without sordid details, Vine presents what happened to all the key players locking each puzzle piece together will skill. The power of desire permeates the novel and reveals itself from multiple perspectives. The Birthday Present is a fine gift for any mystery lover.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Friday, February 12, 2010

The Last Song

Unconditional. Nicholas Sparks’ latest novel, The Last Song, provides ideal material for any book club. The relationships among the characters lend to tears and laughter. Protagonist Ronnie Miller reluctantly spends the summer in North Carolina with her estranged father, Steve. His love for her is unconditional, and his patience with her is remarkable. Ronnie associates with unsavory companions, then falls in love with a charming rich boy. Over the course of a few months, Ronnie becomes transformed by this special summer. There’s a villain and his sidekicks in the story, and that retains tension. At a book club meeting, there will plenty to talk about: parenting, religion, illness, and caring. Most of all, The Last Song celebrates the power of love, and is a sweet book that all readers except cynics are likely to enjoy.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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A Dead Hand

Descriptive. A Dead Hand is Paul Theroux’s latest novel, and here he dabbles into the mystery genre, with mixed results. His vivid descriptive language enlivens the story, but the novel didn’t seem to me to have enough of the conventions of a fine mystery to bring satisfaction. Most of the clues seemed obvious, and the progression of the story was often too predictable. For readers who thrive on feeling one is actually in an unfamiliar place that comes to life through fine language, A Dead Hand will bring some reading pleasure. For mystery lovers, A Dead Hand provides more appetizer than entrĂ©e.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
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Succinct. Do any of us really need to read another book about Winston Churchill? The man himself was so prolific that it could take months (or years) of steady reading to get through his own works. Even so, I highly recommend Paul Johnson’s succinct biography titled, Churchill. Johnson hones in on pivotal episodes of Winston’s life, reminding us of the many ups and downs in the great man’s life. Johnson attempts to balance Churchill’s outstanding achievements with his colossal blunders, but it’s obvious that Johnson worships Churchill, and the mistakes are dispatched more swiftly than are the successes applauded. Johnson’s writing is sharp, the subject always fascinating, and reading Churchill is worth every brief minute spent enjoying it.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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The First Rule

Justice. Protagonist Joe Pike takes center stage in Robert Crais’ second novel to feature him titled, The First Rule. Pike’s cool and competent demeanor is put to the test when one of his guys is murdered. You don’t let one of your guys down, so Joe, always faithful, doggedly pursues the murderer in a page-turning thriller that deepens Pike’s character development just a little more than the previous book and in the Elvis Cole novels that included Pike as a character. Always a tough guy, Pike is aided in this novel by a supporting cast of heroes and villains that will delight those readers who love the achievement of justice even outside the system. Crais’ writing can often be clumsy, but plot and character offset any weaknesses in The First Rule. Any reader looking for a few hours of escapist entertainment will find pleasure from reading The First Rule.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Angel Time: The Songs of the Seraphim

Heavenly. The post-vampire writing of Anne Rice probably attracts a different audience, although her writing remains constant in delivering an engaging and imaginative story that captivates readers. Her latest novel, Angel Time, presents a contemporary character, Toby O’Dare, who meets an angel after Toby has murdered someone in a California hotel room. This angel needs Toby for a mission in 13th century England, and Toby agrees to go there to help people who are outcasts and suffering persecution. Rice’s skill in plot, character and dialogue provides reliable and escapist entertainment for those readers who lean toward this genre. Of course anyone who believes in guardian angels will be delighted by Angel Time.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Drink, Play, F@#k: One Man's Search for Anything Across Ireland, Las Vegas and Thailand

Adolescent. Parody can be the funniest of all types of humor, so it was with high expectations that when I saw the book cover of Andrew Gottlieb’s, Drink, Play, F@#k", as a match to Elizabeth Gilbert’s popular Eat, Pray, Love, I picked it up with relish. I had given Gilbert a two-star rating, and never bothered to write a review. Following a divorce, protagonist Bob Sullivan decides to let himself go loose for the first time in his life, and see what happens. His first step was to drink, and he did that with gusto in Ireland, meeting compatible characters and telling stories to all who would listen. I wish this book had such gusto, but the drinking episode came across as maudlin. The pace picked up when Bob heads to Vegas to play, and along the way meets a guru who guides him through the Vegas games. The gambling, golfing and playing had little humor and unexceptional stories. At just the right time, the guru suggests the pleasures of Thailand, and Bob ends up in a remote resort to enjoy great physical satisfaction, until a car accident. While I laughed at times, there just wasn’t enough laughter to make the full parody work. By the end of the book, I couldn’t care less what happened to Bob.

Rating: One-star (Read only if your interest is strong)

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