Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Time To Kill

by John Grisham

Two rednecks abduct, torture and rape a ten year old black girl in a small Mississippi town.  At their arraignment, the girl’s father blows them away with an M-16.  He is taken into custody, and Jake Brigance, a young white solo practitioner who has some experience with defending poor blacks, comes to his defense.  So begins a nightmare for Brigance and those around him, as the town is split in two, the Klan makes violent attempts on his life, the judicial system is stacked against him, and defeat looms as the trial’s end approaches.

It’s a very compelling first novel, better-written than his second, the unimpressive The Firm, and with all the thrills that The Summons lacked.  Grisham delves into every seedy detail of the judicial system of Ford County, Mississippi, how politics and biased judges and money and votes and favors play a part in every step of the process.  He introduces fully fleshed-out characters, with unsympathetic streaks in his hero and amusing backstories for the supporting cast.  The end was a bit abrupt and shallow (just imagine the girl was white? That’s all it takes to dispel entrenched prejudices and bad feelings?), and left me feeling that a lot of ends were left way too loose (so, I guess the death threats never came to anything after the black guy was acquitted, they all lived happily ever after, the end) – but in all it was an admirable page-turner, richly evocative of the American south.

three stars

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Dead Souls

by Nikolai Gogol
translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volohonsky

A likeable middle aged petty official, Chichikov, comes to the village of N. and starts buying up dead muzhiks from various landowners.  The idea is to transfer ownership of the titular dead souls (in the sense of persons, not actual souls) to Chichikov while they’re still listed as living for tax purposes, until the end of the year.  Then Chichikov will own these serfs, on paper, and presumably be able to use them as property to stake out a loan and become a large landowner himself.

It’s a remarkably funny book; the landowners are sharp parodies, marked by greed or ignorance or self-inflation.  Because of the townsfolk’s tendency to gossip and worship the veneer of respectability and wealth, Chichikov is treated like a prince amongst the petty officials, and a celebration is thrown in his honor. Very suddenly however, rumors flare up that the serfs he bought are all dead, and that he was planning on eloping with the Governor's daughter. In the confusion that ensues, the backwardness of the irrational, gossip-hungry townspeople is most delicately conveyed. Absurd suggestions come to light, such as the possibility that Chichikov is Napoleon in disguise or the notorious and retired 'Captain Kopeikin,' who had lost an arm and a leg during a war. The now disgraced traveler is immediately ostracized from the company he had been enjoying and has no choice but to flee the town in disgrace.  There is a second book, but much truncated, unfinished, and not nearly as funny as the first.  This edition is fine for Gogol scholars, but for those who just wish to enjoy this “poem novel” should stop at the first book.

four stars

Monday, October 5, 2009

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...And Others Don't

by Jim Collins

I decided to read the main book after I admired the ideas in Good to Great and the Social Sectors: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great.  I don’t need to go into the points I adumbrated with that addendum to this book, but I found a few new concepts that hit home.

One, in discussing Level 5 leadership, Collins emphasizes a humble figure: one that needs the brutal truth, doesn’t rely on charisma, looks toward the future of the company and not his own, attributes success to good luck, and so on.  This is a concept that a lot of money-conscious type-A executives might not enjoy hearing.  Two, high compensation doesn’t correlate with good performance.  High compensation can attract and keep the right people, but it can’t motivate the wrong people.  Three, the great companies don’t jump feet first into changes of direction.  Poor companies are always jumping from one quick fix to another; the best companies take it slowly and crawl before they run.  And they never jump on any bandwagon that doesn’t fit their Key Concept.  Four, great leaders don’t waste time trying to ‘rally the troops” or even manage performance.  That’s because they get the right people, the motivated people, first, and stand back to let them work.  The book is filled with such hard sensible dicta, backed by real evidence, that put a harsh spotlight on places that I’ve worked that most definitely were not great.  It’s a very useful, well-written, convincing and important book. 

four stars

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


by William H. Armstrong

Winner of the 1970 Newbery.  Set probably some time in the ‘30s, this book centers on an unnamed black boy who must grow up fast after his poor, sharecropper father is arrested for stealing a ham for his hungry family.  The titular dog, a hound/bulldog mix who loves to hunt with the father, is hit with a shotgun during the arrest, and never hunts again.  It’s a bleak tale; the boy’s silent rage, in which he visualizes brutal violence befalling the unjust, cruel white men who oppress him and his father, is mitigated only by a persistent desire to educate himself, which blooms when he meets a kindly widowed teacher.

This gift of literacy, which literally opens up new worlds to the boy (there is a distinct albeit unsaid implication that he will eventually move beyond the narrow world of shacks in which he grew up), in some small way helps the boy from being crushed by the destruction of the spirits and bodies of both father and dog.  In the end, after the miserable dog finally dies under the house, the boy is glad: “Only the unwise think that what has changed is dead,” he consoles himself.  Is this really a book for children?  I suppose so, despite the bleakness and injustice that saturates the story.  I read this book as a child, and though much of his poetic prose and historical import must have gone over my head, I remember being very moved by the cruelties the boy and dog endured.  However, this is definitely also a story that adults not only can by edified by, they ought to.

[read twice]

four stars

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Leadership Is an Art

by Max DePree

The author, former CEO and chairman of the board of directors at furniture maker Herman Miller, shares his viewpoint on leadership.  It’s an idealistic account of what companies can be when leaders are open and understanding.  One of his main ideas is that leaders owe a great deal to the companies they lead: they need to provide a statement of values, space for employees to grow, a vision for present and future, momentum (“a debt to the future”), and effectiveness, among other things.

De Pree defines effectiveness as “doing the right thing” as opposed to just doing the thing right.  He also sets a high premium on Roving Leadership (the ability of others to lead temporarily when their unique talents call for it), and participative management (encouraging others to have a say, fostering a culture of respect for diversity of talents, the importance of covenants – an understanding that work has value and meaning – as opposed to impersonal contracts).  In sum, he rejects “the dry rules of business school” and pushes liberation over control, ritual and storytelling, trust over hierarchy, people over structures, civility over rules, and wisdom over manuals.  It’s an impressive philosophy, and I’m astonished to see it so closely adhere to that of my current workplace (I was asked to read this for work).  Knowing what the alternative could be makes me even more gratified and amazed that such places do exist. 

three stars

Friday, July 17, 2009

A High Wind In Jamaica

by Richard Hughes

Five English children, born in Jamaica, are sent by ship to England when their house is leveled by a storm.  On the voyage, their ship is attacked by less than bloodthirsty pirates.  Reported dead by the lying ship’s captain, the children actually become sort of pets among the not very active pirates.  Though horrible things happen – the eldest boy dies in a fall, a female cousin of thirteen is apparently taken as a mistress by the mate, and Emily, the ten year old main character, kills a prisoner in blind panic – the prose is mostly dreamlike, dark and yet almost screwball in its comedy (the pirate captain is an ineffectual figure, full of rage and bluster).

Hughes makes much of the difference between children’s minds and the adult mind, likening babies to insects and children to insane humans.  It’s far less a ripping yarn than an extraordinary reckoning with the secret reasons and otherworldly realities of childhood.  Hughes is quite perspicacious in his depiction of the way the children accept changes on faith, don't think too deeply about some matters, accept the word of authority figures even if it belies their won experiences, and fall into affection easily.  But in other things he’s possibly off the mark; for example he has the children utterly unaware of danger, either during the storm or being shot at or being put in the hold – a total blitheness that’s certainly not likely.  It’s a book that swerves from philosophical rumination to adventure to silliness to danger to its chilling finale.   The book leaves the reader with some unanswered implications – is Emily just a regular child with a regular child’s amorality, or did she become corrupt, and can she become an innocent again? – and that makes it a better read.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Tales Of the South Pacific

by James Michener

Easily more than the sum of its parts, this collection of stories is an eye-opening account of life in wartime: not the horrors of war (though there’s a bit of that), but the waiting, the selfless heroism, the bottled-up passion, the thankless endless toil, the vast logistics of a campaign, the suddenness of death and loss and love. The omission of this work from the academic canon is utterly incomprehensible to me; it’s everything that All Quiet on the Western Front is said to be, and more. Michener is far more than a captivating storyteller, collector of colorful characters, painter of vivid natural imagery, and chronicler of the orchestrations of world warfare. Each of the "tales" comprising his carefully-constructed epic narrative is at once thematically and stylistically related to the other smaller narratives and at the same time artistically whole in itself. While he does have poetic phrases at his command, what he can say without saying it – a subtly omitted word or a hint - is breathtaking.

Michener impresses with his vast understanding of the scope of a military operation, as in the chapter “Alligator” (the codename for a fictitious invasion) – the planning, the estimated casualties, the men needed to build, the men needed simply to replace pencils and paper for plans, and on and on – and then he finishes with a few brief, poignant lines of a man who wrote to a plain woman – “who would never be married in a hundred years anyway” – a proposal: “You was very sweet to me and I want to tell you if I…” “But he didn’t. Some don’t.” But, Michener says, that letter plus the one from the chaplain was almost as good as being married. That talent of Michener’s, the ability to juggle the big picture with the little human details, the forgotten grunts, the KIA and the faceless laborers, just blows me away. With every paragraph he weaves a new story of heroism, or efficiency, or defiance, or laziness, or lust, or bravery, or shame, and every character is all too human and believable. It makes the climax of the book, the landing at the island of Kuralei, all the more moving, as his narrator surveys the littered beaches and mourns the dead. This book is quite simply a brilliant masterpiece that should be read by every student of American history; it may be fiction, but it shows more plainly how this was the “Greatest Generation” without hagiography or needless embellishment. The did what they were asked to do, and worked and died and complained and loved, and they weren’t saints or perfect soldiers. They were Americans, is all.

five stars

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Mysterious Benedict Society

by Trenton Lee Stewart

In this 480-page children’s adventure thriller, the titular Mr. Benedict puts out an ad calling for gifted children to take a special opportunity.  Reynie Muldoon answers, and discovers, after some bizarre problem-solving tests, he is member of a team that may save the world.  With Kate, a circus performer who carries a utility bucket, Sticky, a boy with a photographic memory, and the tiny, petulant Constance, he enters a forbidding school known as the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, where a cryptic man named Mr. Curtain is using children’s thoughts to bend the world’s population to his will.

It’s all far more exciting and thrilling than the labored description above can convey.  This is a rich, wonderful book, with logic games and messages of love and belonging, all things designed to tug at the heart of the typical reader: the gifted child who sees himself as an outcast already and yearns for adventure.  I was utterly blindsided by all the twists and turns, I must admit, even the one involving Mr. Curtain at the end and the delightfully silly one involving Constance.  This is really a phenomenal work, packed with humor and adventure and fun; I can’t imagine why it didn’t win the Newbury.  

four stars