In preparation for going on Shark Tank last year, we read all of the books published by the sharks.
Corcoran's was by far my favorite. Her business st...moreIn preparation for going on Shark Tank last year, we read all of the books published by the sharks.
Corcoran's was by far my favorite. Her business story itself is fascinating - she started her namesake Manhattan real estate empire with $1000 borrowed from a boyfriend. The book is full of stories about how she grew that business, including how she hit upon the idea to publish the real estate report that gave her company such wide name recognition, her decision to take a full time second job to subsidize her previously successful company after it took a dive with the stock market, and her refusal to back down and ultimate victory over a lawsuit filed against her company by Donald Trump.
What made this book so intriguing, however, was not just the stories from her business life, but how she wove them together with lessons she learned as one of 10 kids in a scrappy New Jersey family. When the authors of most business books begin the obligatory discussions of their childhoods, I usually start skimming the pages. But in Corcoran's case, she's actually succeeded in drawing clear connections between stuff she learned as a kid and choices she made later as a mogul. The sheer exuberance of the woman is a large part of what makes this work.
I finished this book knowing that Barbara was the shark my husband and I most wanted to make a deal with. She's a genius marketer, for one, and having sold her real estate company, appears to put a tremendous amount of energy into the companies she invests in. So when Barbara announced she disliked my husband on sight because he reminded her of her ex-husband, it was particularly disappointing. Still, I'm glad I read this book any would recommend it to any entrepreneur.(less)
This is an oral history of the iconic comedy show that interviews performers, hosts, writers and producers from the show's first year in 1975 through...moreThis is an oral history of the iconic comedy show that interviews performers, hosts, writers and producers from the show's first year in 1975 through this book's publication in 2002.
Like many of my generation, I grew up badgering my parents to stay up late enough to be able to watch such characters as Roseanne Rosannadanna and The Blues Brothers, then abandoned the show when creator Lorne Michaels and the original cast left 5 years later. Though I didn't start watching it again regularly until Tina Fey's resemblance to Sarah Palin set their political satire back on fire, I was surprised to realize what a powerful comedy force SNL remained even during its so-called "bad" years.
What I gained most from this book was an understanding of just how radically SNL transformed both television and American comedy. The book paints an excellent portrait of the historical context in which the show was born, and goes into some detail about the battles Michaels had to fight to get his comedic vision on the air originally and then get it back under his control after his return years later.
While hearing the story from multiple voices can sometimes get repetitive, the technique also offers a unique, multifaceted perspective on the show and its major players. As one might expect a book about a comedy show to be, it is also incredibly funny in some places; I laughed out loud more than once and resurrected a deep affection for cast members I never knew but still claim as my own.
If there is anything this book makes clear, however, it's that producing a weekly live comedy show is anything but fun and games. I learned more about the unpleasant sides of certain comedy heros than I wanted to know, and the stories of power struggles, drug addiction, sexism, and network politics make is appear miraculous that the show ever got on the air at all, let alone continues to have such an impact over so many decades.
There are those who argue that SNL has lost its edge, and no longer takes the risks that it did when it was first born. This is undoubtedly true, but the book does a good job of arguing that part of the reason for this is because SNL was so successful in bringing cutting edge comedy to the mainstream that what used to be so radical is now normal.
That said, the show continues to be a major force in American entertainment, having produced more household name stars than can be easily counted. I completed this book as Jimmy Fallon was launching on The Tonight Show, an event I doubt even Lorne Michaels could have foreseen when he cast him as a Weekend Update anchor shortly after plucking him from obscurity. Where SNL will go from here remains to be seen, but after nearly 40 years, its safe to say it will continue to have an impact as long as its on the air.(less)
I'm a fan of Patton Oswalt's stand up comedy, so when I found this book on a list of comedy library must reads, I was really looking forward to experi...moreI'm a fan of Patton Oswalt's stand up comedy, so when I found this book on a list of comedy library must reads, I was really looking forward to experiencing more of his work.
Unfortunately, the book is a very mixed bag. It's not a memoir, exactly, though there are some autobiographical pieces that can be both funny and moving. Nor is it pure comedy writing, though there are sections in which he takes a theme and riffs on it a writerly way for a good long time. While there are moments of sheer brilliance, the overall impact of this scattershot style is very hit or miss.
I found his later pieces about his early stand up years the most interesting, and I'm glad that someone has finally explained to me how to play Dungeons and Dragons. But I wouldn't necessarily recommend this book unless you are a hardcore Oswalt fan. (less)
I first heard about this memoir from a male acquaintance who raved about the portrait it painted of a fatherless boy becoming a man under the tutelage...moreI first heard about this memoir from a male acquaintance who raved about the portrait it painted of a fatherless boy becoming a man under the tutelage of a handful of characters who frequented a pub down the street from his home. And the book did start off promisingly enough, with an overview chapter that demonstrated the author knew something about how to construct a sentence and intriguing teasers for events in the coming pages.
I hadn't gotten very far into the author's descriptions of his unarguably challenged childhood, however, before I came close to abandoning the book altogether. I've read quite a few memoirs, including many that describe childhoods even worse than this author's, but I've never encountered one with such an overarching tone of self-pity, and I wasn't sure I could stand 400+ pages of that.
The book became less maudlin as he grew older, however, and replaced that victim-of-circumstances tone with a more insightful victim-of-his-own-bad-choices tale. There are moments in the telling of that tale that do shine - he can be funny at times, and I did get a better sense of what the foreign (to me, anyway) world of bar culture can be like.
Ultimately, though, I finished this book feeling like the author did not succeed in telling the story he wanted to tell. Bars are full of yarns and he relates some good ones, but they are not linked together in a very coherent way. He also has a bit of a focusing problem, spending too long on events that aren't that rich while leaving other enormous topics (like alcoholism) almost entirely unmined.
In one section of the book, the author talks about his failed attempts to write a novel about the bar that became his adopted home. I can't help but wonder if he had stuck with that project if he might ultimately written a better book, one with more discipline and insight. As it stands, he is too captive to his own nostalgia to have made the world he loved accessible to those of us not already familiar with it.(less)
Samira Kawash began thinking hard about candy after what she refers to as "the jelly-bean incident," in which the parent of her child's friend made it...moreSamira Kawash began thinking hard about candy after what she refers to as "the jelly-bean incident," in which the parent of her child's friend made it clear he thought giving the kids jelly beans was equivalent to purchasing them crack. Kawash then set out to understand more about candy - where it came from, what it is, and what it isn't.
There is quite a bit of interesting information in this book, including an extensive history of the US candy industry, which overlaps with the history of industrial food production. A good portion of it is devoted to exploring the question where the line between candy and food actually is, one that food marketers have been attempting to blur for a very long time.
The sections on the history of candy marketing were actually some of the most interesting in the book. While we all know that we are constantly bombarded by advertising messages, I was shocked to learn how many mass food opinions have been completely shaped by advertisers attacking other industries. Big Tobacco, for instance, was the first to aggressively market the idea that candy makes you fat as it fought to compete for the small discretionary spending budgets of newly independent women. The sugar industry, on the other hand, was allegedly involved in the FDA banning of certain artificial sweeteners after the publication of a highly questionably industry financed study showing a very tenuous link between those sweeteners and cancer.
Despite some of the more fascinating parts of the book, I found myself ultimately skimming large portions of it. Kawash is unfortunately too detailed in her exploration of certain aspects of candy's history, and the narrative dragged at times. In her section on candy making as a business opportunity for women at a time when there were few, it would have worked better had she focused on telling one good story rather than trying to cover all the different women who had some success in the industry. Her recitation of the sins of food scientists trying to disguise candy as food (with sugared cereals and breakfast bars, for example) also gets a little repetitive.
Ultimately, I'm glad I read this book because it was very interesting to get an overview of how thoughts about food and nutrition have changed over the last 100 years - stories of candy as a critical war ration and an ad from the early part of the 20th century in which a doctor asks if you have gotten your daily recommended dose of candy particularly drives that point home. I would have preferred, however, a slightly less cliched conclusion that even highly processed candy is fine in moderation. While I agree with that conclusion, I was a little disappointed that Kawash did not end her book with a more spirited defense of the jelly bean.(less)
When I first heard that the author of the memoir, Eat, Pray, Love had written a novel in which a 19th century woman of science finds her beliefs teste...moreWhen I first heard that the author of the memoir, Eat, Pray, Love had written a novel in which a 19th century woman of science finds her beliefs tested by things science can't explain, I was not remotely interested. I assumed this would be a sermon disguised as a novel, and I've heard my fill from those who ineffectively poke back at science when it undermines their more mystical leanings.
After reading a review that indicated there was more to this book than I suspected, however, I decided to give it a try. I'm glad I did.
The story follows Alma Whittaker, a woman born in the year 1800 to an aristocratic, pragmatic Dutchwoman and a decidedly un-aristocratic, but outrageously successful, English botany trader. Inspired by her father's greenhouses and the gardens and forests of their enormous estate outside Philadelphia, Alma develops a fierce curiosity for the workings of the natural world and dedicates her life to understanding it. She is less successful in understanding the workings of the people around her, however, and her scholarly contentment is upended in mid-life by a man who sees many more things in the natural world than she does.
There are several things I really enjoyed about this novel. Whatever one may think of her memoir, Gilbert is a skilled storyteller and her prose is very often delightful to read. I also found this book quite engrossing. Parts of it follow her father's first botanical journeys on whaling ships and the tale is ripe with the history of commerce, culture clash, discovery and exploration. She also does a decent job of tracing the evolution of human scientific thought through a time when new discoveries were upending much of that thought.
There are a few clunky moments here and there - primarily aspects of Alma's characterization that seem awkwardly out of place for the time. I also found myself dreading the turn the book appeared to take with the arrival of Alma's mystically oriented foil. Significantly, however, Gilbert does not definitively come down on the side of that character's arguments and ultimately avoids the easy out of surrendering difficult questions to spiritual answers.
Given the focus of her bestselling memoir, this surprised me. It also made me wonder how the author's own thinking has evolved since her time in that Indian ashram. The book left me with my own ideas on that, and it does a good enough job of speaking for itself on the topic. But I suspect Gilbert will suffer the fate of having her fictional characters conflated with her personal self more than most writers. I'm sure that's not an easy price to pay, but I hope she continues to write despite that.(less)
It's hard to describe this mesmerizing book because it is so many different things. The overlying premise involves food writer and Soviet emigre Anya...moreIt's hard to describe this mesmerizing book because it is so many different things. The overlying premise involves food writer and Soviet emigre Anya von Bremzen's idea to trace the history of the Soviet Union through the food (or lack thereof) that dominated each decade of its 70-plus year existence. But as she describes her and her mother's attempts to prepare her country's classic dishes, familial, social and cultural history flavor each and every page.
I found this incredibly intimate view inside the now defunct USSR uniquely fascinating. Part of the reason is that Von Bremzen has such a diverse family history, including a great, great grandmother who attempted to bring Soviet ideals of feminist equality to Muslim women just after the revolution, a Jewish grandfather who was a KGB spy during the war, and dissident mother appalled by the abuses of the central government whose longing for another world ultimately carried the 9 year-old von Bremzen away from her budding career as a black marketeer specializing in evil capitalist Juicy Fruit gum and into the US.
There are parts of this book that are not easy to read, as Von Bremzen details in unflinching prose what it's like to live in a world where people regularly disappeared into the gulags, and starvation was so widespread that men would steal bread from the hands of children.
But despite the multiple horrors of the Soviet state, von Bremzen's account is rich with nostalgia. Like people everywhere, her family found their own ways of salvaging hope from widespread despair. In reading her account of encountering an America rich in Pop Tarts and Velveeta cheese, I came to understand that a life lived standing in bread lines can have its own satisfactions.
Von Bremzen's writing is also flavored with a healthy dose of very dry Soviet humor. This, combined with her compelling storytelling and tantalizing food descriptions, made this book one that I regret having finished so soon.(less)