This book (which I keep calling "the Minkey Mind" after Peter Seller's character in the Pink Panther) is an illuminating view into the brainwashing an...moreThis book (which I keep calling "the Minkey Mind" after Peter Seller's character in the Pink Panther) is an illuminating view into the brainwashing and McKinsey-speak that many of America's CEOs and consultants spout without much forethought. While McKinsey's "scientific" approach to problem-solving (break it down into pieces, come up with a hypothesis, test your assumptions) can sound yawningly trite, there are a few McKinseyisms that are worth being aware of. One is MECE ("mee-cee"), for Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive, a way of looking at a problem or issue in terms of the ensemble of sub-issues that must be resolved. Another is the McKinsey interview style for data-gathering, and a third is the McKinsey presentation style ("buy-in" as they put it), which emphasizes conclusions first, supporting evidence second, hypotheses third. The importance of charts and tables and an emphasis on "data" is also a big deal in McKinseyland.
In an era of flat, social enterprises, where gamification, social networking and hyperconnected mobile free-agents serve as the "glue" connecting clients, partners and employees, "the McKinsey Way" often sounds like a remnant from another century. (The book was written at the end of the 1990s.) It is scary to think that so many McKinsey consultants, having wreaked so much damage on corporate America (Enron, anyone?) still go around believing this stuff. Still, a good insight into the McKinsey school of thinking which emphasizes dry rigor and a Platonic ideal of business over messy day-to-day realities of employees falling sick and having affairs at the most inconvenient of moments...
Hearing J.R. Moehringer on NPR today (his new book "Sutton" is a novel based on notorious bank-robber Willie Sutton) reminded me to write about his ex...moreHearing J.R. Moehringer on NPR today (his new book "Sutton" is a novel based on notorious bank-robber Willie Sutton) reminded me to write about his excellent coming-of-age memoir "The Tender Bar." As a self-confessed barfly who has always loved the energy, charisma and conviviality of bars (I grew up soaking in Britain's pub culture), this funny and tender tale of Moehringer's adolescence and manhood is both warm and witty. The contrast between the platonic ideal of "The Yale Man" and the real men Moehringer encountered on his frequent visits to the barroom is beautifully realized. His long, painful and unrequited love-affair with a Yalie who seems out of his league is poignant, as is his eventual success first as a news reporter, then as a husband, and more recently as a Pulitzer Prize winner and writer of biographies. (He co-wrote Andre Agassi's "Open" to great critical acclaim.) A recount of one man's search for his manhood, a quest all of us with absent or missing fathers can empathize with. (less)
David Ewing Duncan (caveat, I know him personally), is an excellent science journalist who has written myriad pieces of short- and long-form journalis...moreDavid Ewing Duncan (caveat, I know him personally), is an excellent science journalist who has written myriad pieces of short- and long-form journalism for The Atlantic, The New York Times and elsewhere. However his skills begin to fade when applied to writing entire books. In some ways, he is a victim of his own prescience, exploring this particular theme (someone who experiments with, and quantifies, every aspect of his natural existence) 3-5 years before the birth of the "Quantified Self" movement, personal genome sequencing, and the general culture of over-sharing that now pervades our texting, friending generation. Nonetheless there is some great science here, along with clear expositions on genetics, population biology and statistics. Duncan wisely leans toward the personal, discussing his family's ancestry and its implications for his health and well-being. Overall, a fascinating insight into the coming science of quantified health, wellness and real-time social tracking that is rapidly turning each of us into self-reporting experiments.(less)
A swirling, howling, lashing gale of a book, equal parts Dickens, Wolfe, Rushdie, Tolstoy and Kundera. Roberts better than anyone captures the intensi...moreA swirling, howling, lashing gale of a book, equal parts Dickens, Wolfe, Rushdie, Tolstoy and Kundera. Roberts better than anyone captures the intensity of life of early 21st Century Bombay (Mumbai). (Suketu Mehta's "Maximum City" is a close second.) A semi-autobiographical tale of fantastical proportions, "Shantaram" makes "Slumdog Millionaire" look like a Peanuts cartoon. Robert's picaresque of mobsters, femme fatales, drug addicts, billionaires and paupers is so outrageous it could only be true. Overwhelming, exilerating and exhausting, just like the city of 20 million I grew up in.(less)
Better than many other recent tomes by Web2.0 millionaires who think they have discovered the secret to life, Hoffman's education in philosophy provid...moreBetter than many other recent tomes by Web2.0 millionaires who think they have discovered the secret to life, Hoffman's education in philosophy provides a somewhat more subtle approach to the importance of networking and the management of one's career path (much like a startup.) To his credit, Hoffman acknowledges the significance of failure (including his own), luck and timing. (An undercurrent of the book is a sense of "survivor's guilt".)(less)
Outstanding! Every manager in the USA should be required to read this book. The Chapter on Tony Robbins alone is worth it! A fascinating study on the...moreOutstanding! Every manager in the USA should be required to read this book. The Chapter on Tony Robbins alone is worth it! A fascinating study on the "cult of personality" that infests our Twitterified, Facebooked, reality-TV culture...(less)
I find Free Will to be one of the hardest concepts to understand, but in this pithy, concise and clear exposition Sam Harris articulates the differenc...moreI find Free Will to be one of the hardest concepts to understand, but in this pithy, concise and clear exposition Sam Harris articulates the difference between Free Will, Human Choice, and Willpower. Choosing a particularly grisly murder/rape/arson case as his jumping-off point, Harris methodically builds the case that Free Will must be an illusion, unless it exists in some vessel other than the mind. (In which case, what are the operating constraints of that other vessel?) Others (particularly Daniel Dennett) have argued for an "executive function" of the higher mind, aptly described by the monicker "Free Won't", but Harris is dismissive of this construct too. It is fascinating to read (and re-read) his delineation between "choice" and the random biochemical and neurological "firings" of the brain.
Of course, demolishing the concept of Free Will (as neuroscience seems about to do) has major consequences for our systems of morality, law and religion. Harris' points to a freedom that emerges when the argument for Free Will (established by the Supreme Court in 1978), is removed. He argues that it opens the way for a more logical and scientific viewpoint into morality and law than current standards, grounded as they are in the mists of history and religion.
I am both proud and embarrassed to admit I have never read anything by the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, or any other of the nineteenth...moreI am both proud and embarrassed to admit I have never read anything by the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, or any other of the nineteenth century female authors revered by so many and understood by so few. My only trial with the genre was with (admittedly male, early twentieth-century) Thomas Hardy's "Far from the Madding Crowd", and only because I was forced to read it in high school. The trope of upstanding but repressed female struggling to choose between fine, solid (but let's face it, boring) male and caddish, wicked, unstable (though devastatingly handsome) interloper was not one that I fell into readily. So it was with some trepidation that I opened Eugenides' latest, which explicitly pays homage to this genre (in both title and form), yet places its characters (archetypes might be a better word) in early ninteen-eighties Rhode Island, where we first encounter them graduating from Brown University. (Eugenides graduated from Brown in the early 'eighties, and some have pointed to the autobiographical nature of one of the archetypes. Perhaps you can guess which one?)
So imagine my surprise at falling comfortably into Eugenides' ably-delineated patterns of collegiate (and post-collegiate) life, with a romantic, witty and at times hilarious discourse on the characters' intellectual struggles with such postmodern giants as Barthes and Derrida. The first third of the novel has us switching back and forth in time (shades of Egan's "Goon Squad"), striving to discover the rationale behind the character's seemingly capricious actions. (Eugenides dares the reader to deconstruct his own novel, dropping tantalizing clues as we gradually discover the consequences of their behavior). However by about mid-section the novel starts to fall apart, with long digressions into molecular biology, thinly disguised Nobel prize-winners, and other flotsam and jetsam of the eighties thrown in to bulk out the book to the requisite 800+ pages. While one of the protagonists struggles with clinical depression, the reader struggles to see where the novel is headed. (I developed quite a headache with the recitals of all of the travels, illnesses, and spindly parents tossed into the word-salad). The author does rescue things a bit with a clever and somewhat ambiguous ending, although not as cleverly as this reader would have liked. (Given the title of the novel, he left himself rather a small sandbox in which to play).
Douglas Copeland (in reviewing Hari Kunzru's new book "Gods Without Men") defines a new genre he terms "Translit" and offers as canonical forms David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas" and Michael Cunningham's "The Hours" (two of my favorite books from the past ten years). Eugenides, whose last novel (Middlesex) had both sprawling historical sweep and an intriguing if flawed lead, here brings his own version of the form by dragging us from the hearth of nineteenth-century England to the striving of late twentieth-century Rhode Island, a time when it was once again "Morning in America". That he is able to do so and keep us engaged is testament to his writing skill. However those expecting a contemporary "Pride and Prejudice" may come away just a tad disappointed.(less)
A witty and clever novel combining Seattle high-technology, London's marketing/PR industry and Bollywood, Transmission is a hilarious meditation on th...moreA witty and clever novel combining Seattle high-technology, London's marketing/PR industry and Bollywood, Transmission is a hilarious meditation on the connected world we live in today. A lonely Indian programmer working for a large software company unwittingly unleashes a computer virus based on his love for a Bollywood actress. In parallel, a vacuous young PR executive at a London firm engages in ever more desperate behavior in an attempt to raise money for his company. In Mumbai, a beautiful actress prepares to shoot her new movie in Scotland and looks to use the event as an excuse to break out of her cloistered life. Kunzru weaves together these disparate strands into a single overlapping narrative that is at once humorous and believable, keeping us on the edge of our seats as we watch with increasing incredulity as the protagonists drag themselves back from the precipices they find themselves on. Accurately skewering the post-Internet generation, "Transmission" falls somewhere between "White Teeth", "Neuromancer" and "Through a Scanner Darkly", while conjuring up a world all of its own.(less)
Probably the most accessible of Murakami's psychedelic metafiction (the only surreal character - the recurrent Sheepman - occurs right at the start of...moreProbably the most accessible of Murakami's psychedelic metafiction (the only surreal character - the recurrent Sheepman - occurs right at the start of the novel). The rest comprises a murder-mystery centered around a lonely journalist and a precocious thirteen year-old and effortlessly spans time (the eighties) and space (the Pacific between Japan and Hawaii). Combining all of Murakami's usual themes (popular, jazz and classical music, alienation and loneliness, enigmatic mysteries that lie just beyond the veneer of everyday life), "Dance Dance Dance" sweeps the reader along with a taut plot, intriguing menagerie of characters, and two strange and beautiful protagonists whose unlikely friendship cements the narrative. Murakami has come under withering criticism recently (the closer he appears to get to the Nobel shortlist the sharper the knives appear to get), and certainly there are those who find his prose morally vacuous and his spatiotemporal pyrotechnics heavy-handed. But if you yearn to dig deeper into the solitude, emptiness and desolation that comprises much of modern life, his fiction is hard to beat.(less)
Ishiguro's methodical and systematic unraveling of a character's inner life typically leaves readers either enthralled or exasperated (and readers at...moreIshiguro's methodical and systematic unraveling of a character's inner life typically leaves readers either enthralled or exasperated (and readers at my book club exhibited both reactions in equal measure!) I definitely fall into the former, and revel in the "peeling-the-onion" mystery of his best work (the butler in "Remains of the Day"; the painter in "An Artist in the Floating World"). Here he ups the stakes considerably by asking what the inner life of a biological clone might resemble. Ishiguro ingeniously combines reminisces of the past (British boarding-school life in the nineteen-eighties) with an ever-so-slightly off-kilter future (clones are either "donors" who contribute their organs to "originals"; or "carers" who look after donors if they themselves are not genetically pure enough to donate their own organs). In this matter-of-fact dystopian society the three protagonists Kathy, Tommy and Ruth grow up in a special boarding school where they form childhood cliques and learn to accept their isolation until they are old enough to venture into the broader world. Dimly aware of their status, struggling with adolescent angst and their own burgeoning sexuality, they cling desperately to semi-truths or complete fabrications: They can "defer" if they are in love; their art projects are a measure of their "soul" and hence acceptance by society. As they come to the chilling realization that they are nothing more than replacement parts for an unaware and uncaring society, the tragic arc of their lives (foreshadowed in the opening chapter) becomes apparent. As the book leads to its heartbreaking conclusion, the reader finds themselves caught in an intricately spun web of Ishiguro's plotting: drawn into the emotionally charged world of the protagonists we can no longer watch them die without acknowledging their fundamental humanity. As Kathy helps her friend and unrequited love Tommy through to "completion" (in the euphemism of the culture), the knowledge that neither love nor art is a cure for their "disease" becomes stunningly obvious.
The book was made into an excellent film by Mark Romanek in 2010; Karey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield give powerful performances as Kathy and Tommy. I recommend the film to those who *don't* like the book: It dramatically captures the emotional tension between clones and humans in a way that Ishiguro's elliptical prose leaves understated.(less)