Review: The Alliance

This NY Times bestselling book about managing employees in the modern workplace offers one big idea. It’s not hard to understand and the book is filled with examples that are helpful and illuminating in varying degrees. Like most popular business and management books I’ve read, the “big idea” is driven home again and again, the content is a bit repetitive, the language is very easy to skim, and the book itself could have been one really great Harvard Business Review or Atlantic article, but was stretched to create a book instead. Fine, it is what it is.

I’m giving this book 4 stars despite all that because the big idea here is a good one and one I hadn’t really put into words before. Here it is in summary: Modern employers do not offer workers loyalty anymore (did they ever, really?), workers don’t believe in loyalty for its own sake to an employer anymore (why should they?), jobs don’t last for decades anymore, careers change really fast now. It is therefore in everyone’s best interest to think of employment like “tours of duty.” Each project, position and working relationship can be considered in terms of a “tour of duty” rather than a lifelong commitment. We all know that jobs will end sometimes, yet most managers and employees have a weird reticence when it comes to discussing this fact frankly. (I cannot help but mentally apply this to dating.) Employers hate to openly acknowledge that their workers don’t belong to them – all employees are free agents. In turn, employees shy away from discussing this openly because it’s one of those things we don’t talk about, for fear of insulting someone or facing retaliation.

It would be wonderful if more managers thought this way and treated their employees like smart, independent free agents. The only problem is that not all employees are actually smart, pro-active, entrepreneurial and driven. If you make the mistake of hiring lazy people, or people who simply don’t think this way and instead WANT security, you will scare the pants off of them with this management style. Maybe this is good, if you really want to only hire and retain very creative and driven people. If you need some dependable people for long term less exciting roles, however, much of the advice in this book may not apply. Let’s be honest: Many jobs out there are necessary but don’t particularly light anyone’s entrepreneurial fire.

My caveat with this book: Consider the source – the founder of LinkedIn. If you work at a startup or some kind of creative fast-paced company where you manage mostly highly educated knowledge workers or sales people, great! If you ARE a driven knowledge-worker type, then I also recommend the book because it might help you better understand what you want out of your next work environment, and strategize around how to get it.

Book review: The Alliance, by Reid Hoffman
4/5 stars

Review: The Goldfinch

A young boy named Theo with a troubled family life survives a horrifying terrorist act in New York City that kills his beloved mother and changes the course of his entire life. So much happens in the lives of Theo, his family and friends over the course of nearly 800 pages that I won’t try to summarize the plot – besides, the twists and turns are best discovered in their own time, and whether or not you predict them, they are delightful.

At its heart, this is a novel about memory and loss, and about art, and the value of things. What could possibly be more important that the concept of value? Love, family, antique objects, singular works of art, the minutes of our lives – what is any of it worth, and how can we know?

Not all of my reactions are favorable, though. I quickly realized that the characters had a “stock” quality to them, no matter how many hundreds of descriptive words were employed to flesh them out. There is the pale, precocious, ill-fated nerd Andy and his rich, New York high society family; there is the beautiful, delicate-looking yet spunky love interest, Pippa; there is the swaggering ex-actor alcoholic father. The obsessive amount of detail in this book is at once satisfying and frustrating depending on how it’s enlisted, because no matter how clearly I feel I see these characters, I can’t escape the sense that I’ve met them before. Tartt also resorts to actual cliches a few times and they made me flinch on more than one occasion early on.

The London Review of Books sniffed that this is a “children’s book” for adults and I can’t say they are wrong about the actual writing level. It ain’t Henry James. But I read and enjoy a lot of books that are also not Henry James. Thus: While totally understanding why someone might not like this modern fairy tale, I thoroughly, completely and shamelessly enjoyed it.

Book review: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
4/5 stars

Review: Spark

An incredibly important, exhaustively researched book that will fascinate anyone who is even remotely interested in how our brains work. Now quite famous and highly regarded, psychiatrist John Ratey presents study after study in service to his thesis: that vigorous physical exercise is not only good for our bodies, it also has the power to improve mood, treat mental illnesses like anxiety and depression, prevent memory loss, improve conditions like ADD, and generally “remodel” our brains for all around better performance. The first book of its kind (that I know of, anyhow), it leaves no assertion hanging, but presents reams of compelling evidence to support every claim. The insights in this book have changed many lives, including mine. It should be taught in every middle school physical education or biology class.

Book review: Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John J. Ratey, Eric Hagerman
5/5 stars

Review: Brand Seduction

An entertaining, well researched and highly readable spin through how our brains work, how we process messages and how we project our thoughts and aspirations into brands. To create a brand people will identify with and truly love, companies must strive for utter consistency of message and, these days, marketers must also understand some neuroscience. Consider this a vital crash course. As a marketing and branding pro I’ve read stacks of books on the subject; this one is worth keeping around.

Book review: Brand Seduction: How Neuroscience Can Help Marketers Build Memorable Brands, by Daryl Weber
4/5 stars

Review: Lean Out

Lean Out is a diverse collection of 19 essays of uneven quality but consistent passion. Each piece of writing shares a personal story, experience or perspective of a woman or transperson either in the trenches of Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial dream machine, or looking back on it after leaving. Whatever benefits Sheryl Sandberg extolls in “Lean In” (the clear reference point to which this collection is a response) these essays point out that outsiders are expected to conform in order to succeed…and “outsiders” are anyone who is not a white cis male. This isn’t so much a whiny collection of hand-wringing identity politics as a thoughtful report of real experiences – the reader is invited to draw a lot of their own conclusions.

My star rating isn’t for the quality of writing (which is sort of all over the place) but for the topic and diversity of perspectives and ideas. I read it because I currently live, work and hire for a startup in SF, and I want to be thoughtful about it. Worthwhile.

Favorite essays: “Fictive Ethnicity and Nerds” by K. Cross; “The Pipeline Isn’t the Problem” by the editor.

Book review: Lean Out: The Struggle for Gender Equality in Tech and Start-Up Culture, edited by Elissa Shevinsky
4/5 stars

Review: Island beneath the sea

A truly extraordinary novel of wide, sweeping historical vision, hope and beauty among the darkest of times and places.

I was gripped for its hundreds of detailed pages and learned a great deal I didn’t know before about a breathtaking array of topics, including: the French and Spanish in Haiti and Cuba, the reverberations of the French Revolution in the colonies, the slave trade in the colonies vs in Louisiana, sugar cane plantation life, New Orleans culture and society around the 1800s and its complex system of caste based on skin color.

The cast of characters includes slaves of all kinds, plantation owners and overseers both cruel and kind, wealthy and conniving society ladies, revolutionary warriors both black and white, pragmatic pirates, early abolitionists, dashing bon vivants and beautiful courtesans. The mystery of both voodoo and the Christian faith infuse the narrative with occasional dashes of magic. Dance through this fascinating history alongside Tété, and feel inspired as she finds endless courage and hope within herself in places where humanity and love seem impossible…but aren’t.

Book review: Island beneath the sea, by Isabelle Allende
5/5 stars

Review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

This slim volume is partly a guide to training for long distance running, part memoir of a writer’s life and career, part zen philosophy of life and death. I’ve heard it repeatedly described as “intimate” and “thoughtful” and it is both of these things, yet also it is more.

For someone who hates to run, I sure have read a lot about long distance running lately. I read Scott Jurek’s ultramarathon running memoir/vegan cookbook, I’ve read more articles about the sport than I can count – partially because I’m trying to understand my husband (who loves running) but partially because I’m trying to understand other things, about life, discipline and repetition as the path to greatness in any of life’s pursuits, athletic or not.

While I am not a fan of running, I am a fan of stories that tell of human will and triumph, and I am a great fan of Murakami, so I was drawn to this book. It seemed inevitable that I should read it and the changing of the year always brings with it for me a more focused than usual contemplation of discipline, of goals and will.

Murakami draws some fairly obvious parallels here between the lonely, plodding labors of long-distance running and regular novel-writing. (This book makes a good companion to Stephen King’s “On Writing” which I also recently read and enjoyed.) The marathons and triathlons for which Murakami trains and in which he competes provide some narrative flow and shape. But I would tell you not to read this book for the narrative, and not even for the autobiographical insight into Murakami (how he became a writer, how he and his wife sold their successful bar and changed their lives with calm-eyed purpose).

Read this book for the unexpected beauty of its sentences, for the small bits of descriptive genius that Murakami creates so often. The small wry jokes, the delightful insistence on personifying objects. Though some reviewers have complained about his stubborn vagueness, it’s clear to me that when he says something is “pretty good” or that he is “kind of naive” or that his leg felt “really painful” or some similarly terse and boring statement, it’s deliberate. And he is unrelentingly Japanese in his subtle deliberateness. If he unleashed all the words in his vocabulary at all times, we wouldn’t notice the most wonderful bits, where every word is so easily, perfectly placed, where every small choice matters.

These are few of my favorite moments:

From chapter 6: “I had plenty of desire to run, but my legs had their own opinion about this.”

“I’m a piece of machinery. I don’t need to feel a thing. Just forge on ahead.”

“[One] of the privileges given to those who’ve avoided dying young is the blessed right to grow old. The honor of physical decline is waiting.”

From chapter 7: “Has the dark shadow really disappeared? Or is it inside me, concealed, waiting for its chance to reappear?”

From chapter 9: “The sad spreadsheet of my life that reveals how much my debts far outweighs my assets.”

As I review these scraps I find they do not quite retain their magic or meaning all alone, excerpted here, the spell broken. I also find I can’t quite describe what makes Murakami’s particular way of speaking and writing so special to me. If you do not like Murakami, perhaps this book is not for you. I do not like running, but this book delighted and touched me to the core.

Book review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami
5/5 stars