Lots of great non-fiction books this month, but I will start with a novel I loved:
True Confections – the delicious twisted story of a family in the candy business
And then two books about language:
The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, an entertaining book about grammar (really)
A Better Pencil, a unstuffy book about writing
Finally, on a serious note, a book about drugs and their ravages, Methland.
Like Planet Google reviewed here a short while ago, Googled tells the story of the company, focusing on its impact on the media industry. The portraits of the founders and the company as uber-geeks, brilliant but arrogant and often blind to other people’s feelings, are well-drawn, if overly fawning. The author also describes the unusual and ambiguous role of the CEO, Eric Schmidt, in enlightened and careful detail. I found the last third of the book, where he evokes the media industry’s reaction, fascination, and opposition to Google, tedious and not as constructed as it could be. Is Google a classic threat to an industry that serves as intermediary between content producers and consumers, or is it breaking the entire system of content production, for instance copyrights? I wish the argument would be better framed.
A delightful story of a family in the candy-making business with slightly shady beginnings, a complicated marital history, and a remarkable daughter-in-law with excellent marketing instincts (except when she’s dead wrong!), a shameful past, and a not-so-clear future. True Confections manages to read like a novel despite the many well-research candy-business details,and keeps twisting and turning until the very end. Excellent!
Stones into Schools continues the story started in Three Cups of Tea, the poignant description of how a mountain climber promised his hosts in Pakistan to build a school, and succeeded, years later and despite all odds. Now at the head of a bona fide charitable foundation (unfelicitously abbreviated ‘CAI’) Mortenson continues to bring literacy to villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan that are plagued by poverty, difficult access, and fearfully harsh weather.
This book and the CAI effort in general is a wonderful illustration of the benefits of intelligently targeted aid, as opposed to blind aid to corrupt or inept governments (as described in Dead Aid). It’s also proof that one person can make a difference, albeit at fantastic cost to physical health and his family. And finally it shows that barriers take time to remove, as is painfully illustrated by very smart young women who are denied a (free) education because their fathers or husbands just can’t see beyond the boundaries of tradition…
In The Diversity of Life, Edward O. Wilson makes an impassioned plea for conservation. That was the boring part, for me at least. Before he gets to the plea, however, he gives many examples of biological diversity, from the usual Amazonian jungles to … the hills of Northern California and their rare butterfly species. He also gives limpid explanations of the mechanisms of evolution and includes many useful illustrations, my favorite being one where each species group is represented at scale with the number of species in it (huge insects, big mushrooms, tiny mammals). A perfect book until two third of the way through.
Do you think grammar and usage are utterly boring? In The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, Jack Lynch will change your view of grammarians and usage mavens while taking you through an entertaining history of prescriptive (“thou must”) and descriptive (“whatever feels good”) linguists in all their extremist silliness.
The ravages of Latin grammar, the quick passing of slang, the constant renewing of longing for the good old days of proper grammar are all fodder for his humor. Great fun.
The Audacity to Win tells the story of the Obama presidential campaign, as told by his campaign manager. I found it compelling in two ways. One, it gives an interesting look at Obama the man, no doubt from someone who is profoundly sympathetic to his side and his persona, but still manages to show Obama’s measured approach to problems and decisions. The book is also a dive into the rather shady world of political consultants, with their silly (if publicly disavowed) attachments to the most obscure polls and their knee-jerk counter-attacks to any move, no matter how small, from the opponent — it’s rather scary to watch how sausage is made!
Plouffe’s writing style is not always fluid (where is the ghost writer when we need one?) and clearly we already know the outcome but the book is an engaging dive into the backrooms of politics.
Hello Goodbye is the story of a woman who is dying of brain cancer (but has not been told) and whose husband organizes an anniversary party as a pretext to give their friends an opportunity to say goodbye. The few days they spend at a fancy hotel bring several drinking binges, inappropriate flirting, a new-age healing session, strained meals with the daughter, and various awkward reflections on death.
Apart from the convincing description of the faded splendor of the Mount Washington hotel in New Hampshire, where I happened to spend a few days many years ago, I did not find much to like in the book. A daughter who is in college but behaves like a young teenager, clueless “friends” who apparently never bothered to phone the sick woman before the party, and an understandably distraught husband who somehow forgot to tell her wife her real prognostic. Who can believe all that?
Planet Google tells the story of the first ten years of Google, focusing on its great successes but not shying away from the failures, often brought about by the same principles that guided the victories. Google succeeded in search because, from the start, it aimed to index everything on the web. On the other hand, it has shown a disabling weakness when it comes to social media, in particular missing its chance to become the video-repository site, losing to YouTube, because its vision was to work with the TV networks and to serve as the frontline of censorship.
For high-tech insiders the book is full of memories — of companies that no longer exist (we specialize in those, I think!) and repurposed office buildings, including the now-famous Googleplex. The writing is occasionally obscure and the fawning excessive, but otherwise it’s an interesting case study of how a business vision can both succeed and fail.