non-fiction


We’re fans of Top Chef and midway through the current season, regular judge Gail Simmons got married and went on her honeymoon, so there’s a new regular judge taking her place – an ascerbic Brit named Toby Young. It turns out I’ve read a book of his that had nothing to do with food criticism:

This season introduces new judge Toby Young, food critic and best-selling author of the book “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,” which was the basis for an upcoming film.

[reference: http://tv.msn.com/tv/top-chef/?gt1=28103]

Well son of a gun. I’m gonna pull that book off my shelf next time I think of it and give it a leaf-through. I recall it being pretty funny.

Last fall, when I was flailing about unhappily at my job, a friend recommended that I read this book about management philosophy. I’ve never been a manager, but she correctly surmised that I would benefit from thinking about how I’ve experienced being managed.

The message of the book is fairly easy to state, and it seems so obvious once stated. Great managers don’t buy into the idea that employees should focus on overcoming their deficits; they don’t try to change people. Instead, they aim to use each employee’s different strengths and to unleash productivity by aligning people’s talents with the type of work that requires those talents. Obviously that isn’t going to always be easy but great manager are oriented toward achieving that.

There’s more, of course, but the fundamental takeaway for me was the rejection of treating everyone the same in favor of tailoring your management to each person’s unique makeup.

So the message is good. As far as the writing style goes, my experience is that business/management popular press books are written on basically a 5th grade reading level, very clear but with tremendous amounts of repetition. No doubt the book could have been 25% shorter. But, that’s a small irritation.

Bottom line: recommended

Like the quote on the back of the book says:

“For scientific discovery, give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.” –unattributed

I figured after reading a book that took place in the Arctic (The Long Exile), why not follow up with a book that takes place in the Antarctic? In 1914, explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship became trapped in ice, drifted for ~9 months, was eventually crushed by the ice and sank, and the crew of 28 men drifted on ice floes for 5 more months. And that is the backstory. This incredible account of their eventual safe rescue, written by his ship’s captain, begins after all that – when their ice floe camps finally reach the edge of the ice pack and they’re able to put their three little rescue boats back in actual water. It’s positively mind-boggling what they endured, and an amazing testament to Shackleton’s leadership and dedication to his crew.

There were many fascinating photographs of the crew, the seas, the ice, their original vessel trapped in the ice, and their camps. The front of the book also had an excellent map showing their whole path, which I loved being able to refer to. The only downside of this book was all the technical sailing jargon. It’s like, every damn rope on the boat has its own name. I have zero background in sailing, so most of that went over my head entirely which was kind of annoying.

Bottom line: recommended, especially if you can put up with sailing jargon.

Absolutely absorbing and beautifully written, this book relates the experiences of a group of Inuit who were relocated by the Canadian government from their community on the Eastern shore of Hudson Bay, to the remotest and most uninhabitable islands in the Arctic Circle in order to bolster Canada’s claim on those lands.

You might recall hearing about this in the 90’s, when the truth about this relocation project came to light and the Inuit finally had the opportunity to speak about what had been done to them. I only remember it in the vaguest sense, and I don’t think I knew any of the details, which are truly shocking.

The Long Exile is excellent in every regard. McGrath vividly illuminates the landscapes and the relevant history of Canadian Arctic and sub-Arctic settlement, and describes the relocated Inuit with detail and compassion. They’re treated as fully human individuals and as a society, which is noteworthy only because it’s the exact opposite of how they were treated by the government. She chronicles the Canadian officials’ fundamental misunderstanding of what would make this relocation project succeed. She documents their stomach-turning and heart-breaking disregard for human safety and for Inuits’ agency. And she manages to do so without demonizing or excusing what the government did, which is impressive.

McGrath wisely gets out of the way of the story; realizing that reporting the facts of the situation eloquently and elegantly is more effective than writing a furious diatribe. I learned a lot. And I was outraged and ashamed  and provoked by what I read – she didn’t have to tell me to feel that way.

Bottom line: highly recommended

(while I’m on vacation, I’m republishing some old book reviews from 18+ months ago at my now-defunct blog. This one is even timely, what with the recent raid on an FLDS compound in Texas. Enjoy.)

After reading Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven a few years ago, I got somewhat freaked out about the Mormon Church. I realized that Krakauer’s book was about fundamentalist splinter groups that had broken off from the main church, but I hadn’t really known anything about the LDS Church before that, and had only ever casually known one Mormon in my life. Pretty interesting and violent history – and stuff that I’d never learned in any of my American History classes in middle school or whatever.

Since that time, I’ve been sort of on the lookout for books about Mormons. I got one at a used bookstore, called Godmakers: A Shocking Expose of What the Mormon Church Really Believes. It mostly sucked. The premise of the book was to convince the reader that Mormonism isn’t Christianity, using chapter after chapter of arguments like “Mormons believe X, but the Bible says Y!!! OMG!!! They are going to burn in hell!!!” Interesting for some, perhaps, but I wanted something more… scholarly. It’s only marginally interesting to me whether it’s Christianity or not – works vs. grace, etc – because they seem like totally deluded, woman-hating nutjobs either way.

Maybe a year or so ago, my yoga teacher was reading One Nation Under Gods because her boyfriend was a former Mormon and was trying to extricate himself from their ways of thinking & living. She recommended it highly so I asked for it as a gift, and have finally gotten around to reading it.

(more…)

(while I’m on vacation, I’m republishing some old book reviews from 18+ months ago at my now-defunct blog. Enjoy.)

This horrible book was recommended to me by a colleague, and now I wonder how I can possibly trust that person ever again. It had a couple of big flaws. One was that much of the material was superficial and obvious. The other was that it was terribly written, and clearly had no editor. After reading a particularly incoherent “case study” that barely supported the book’s thesis, and may have mildly undermined it, I just had to stop and declare the book Dead To Me.

I wanted to look up the details for additional ridicule here, but it’s been a couple of months since I read the thing, and I can’t find it right now. Too bad. Well, I won’t waste another thought on this crappy book. I won’t even link to it. Look it up your damn selves if you’re interested :-)

Not Recommended in the slightest

(while I’m on vacation, I’m republishing some old book reviews from 18+ months ago at my now-defunct blog. Enjoy.)

This is a chronological collection of Pollitt’s columns from The Nation over the past ~5 years, dating back to shorthly before 9/11 and concluding in February of this year.

Her writing is sharp, wry, witty, incisive. Virginity or Death! is a oneof the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year for sure. Each essay is very interesting and self-contained, about 3 pages long (good for traveling!). Her columns cover a wide swath of political and social issues, and in general she’s got something to say that is very worthwhile. Some essays that stand out are about

  • Bill Bennett’s gambling
  • the idiocy of welfare policies that discourage poor single mothers from seeking an education in addition to working
  • why she refused to put out an American flag after 9/11
  • a smattering of columns about Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich (who, I learned, has a surprisingly anti-woman voting record) and other 2004 election issues
  • the title essay, of course, about the Christian right’s insane opposition to the HPV vaccine
  • The Passion of the Christ
  • the New York Times’ irritating tendency to write “women don’t really want careers” articles and other feminist backlash topics

There are only a few so-so columns, usually ones where she’s out of her depth on the science (evolution vs. intelligent design, for example) but they’re few and far between.

Bottom line: Recommended

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