Monthly Archives: May 2012

*** Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton

Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion is a delightful respite from the spiteful attacks of books like The God Delusion and focuses on the special talents of organized religion to create community, educate the young, and create lasting institutions.  The chapter on education would be a good addition to any teacher-training program, with its emphasis on theater, repetition, and the inclusion of ethics and emotion into all teaching. The author chooses his examples from Christianity (with especially kind and insightful views of the most successful aspects of the Catholic Church), Buddhism, and Judaism — and somewhat mysteriously not from Islam, although many chapters could easily include references to it.



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* House of Stone by Anthony Shadid

It’s a little awkward to profess dislike of a book whose author was tragically killed shortly after publication, but House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East never quite came together for me. Shadid tries to intertwine three stories: that of the house of his great-grandfather he is restoring over the course of a year-long sabbatical, that of his family who emigrated from Lebanon to the Midwest two generations ago, and that of Lebanon and the difficult and ongoing conflicts that have taken place there. Of the three, the one that worked the best for me was the story of the family with its many branches, its unique personalities, and its piecemeal move from a prosperous, established position in a deteriorating state to tough survival through hard work in a foreign land. I would have liked to see some pictures, though, annotated pictures of his heroic grandmother, his many grand-uncles and uncles, the grocery stores in Oklahoma City. The story of the restoration of the house, in contrast, seems to consist of long-running arguments with incompetent or lazy workers, peppered with tedious insults rather than the romantic rebirth of which one may dream — or may expect from the always enticing cover blurb.A disappointment.



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** The Secret Life of Pronouns by James Pennebaker

In The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, the author explains that much can be gleaned from examining the little words we use. Not the obvious nouns and verbs, but the infrastructure: the pronouns of the title but also prepositions, conjunctions, negations, and so on. Since computers are obliging word-counters and we are now prolific digital text producers, it’s easy to count those function words and it turns out that women use more pronouns and more verbs while men use more nouns and numbers — and transgender individuals move from one side to the other as their hormonal levels change. A little creepy, no?

All that’s interesting, for a while, but what can it be used for? It seems mostly for police work; hang on tightly to your Facebook account, and watch what you write on your blog. Perhaps I should add a good dose of nouns and numbers?

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** The Favored Daughter by Fawzia Koofi

The Favored Daughter: One Woman’s Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future is a memoir by the best-known Afghani woman politician, not so ably assisted by her co-author who seems to supply an awkward style and frequent syntax errors — but the focus is on a life that’s out of the ordinary. Left to die by her mother, brought up in a very large household with seven wives, way more than the Muslim maximum of four, having witnessed decades of war and survived a tragic marriage, Koofi tackles tradition, the education of women, tolerance and diversity. If you can get past all the horrors, it’s a very inspiring tale of overcoming poverty, violence, and obscurantism.

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* The IKEA Edge by Anders Dahlvig

The IKEA Edge: Building Global Growth and Social Good at the World’s Most Iconic Home Store is a surprisingly dull memoir and merchandising insights by the past CEO of IKEA. For me the best part of the book were the many snippets of experiences throughout the expansion of IKEA into a multinational giant, from how to marry the egalitarian corporate flavor with the  Chinese culture, to how the fall of the Berlin wall led to painful price hikes from Eastern European suppliers, to the refreshingly candid admission that corporate goals must often be set pretty much randomly, but are still worth setting.

f the name is Ikea, it tells you who founded the company (Ingvar Kamprad) and the village in Sweden in which he was born and raised (Elmtaryd, Agunnaryd). It is also a name that has become synonymous throughout the world for a wide range of home furnishing self-assembly products as well as stylish but durable accessories of the highest quality.

The title of this review refers to the fact that most of the companies annually ranked among the most highly admired and best to work for are also ranked among those most profitable and having the greatest cap value. In my opinion, that is not a coincidence. As a former president and CEO of IKEA, Anders Dahlvig, explains in this book, global growth enables global social good. Moreover, because global social good is more important to consumers than ever before, those companies who have earned renown for their commitment to it are more likely to thrive. With regard to employees, Dahlvig observes, “I’ve come to believe most people feel motivated and happy is work has a bigger meaning beyond power, wealth, and other inflated statements.” In order words, be associated with, indeed engaged in an organization that is “contributing to a better society.”

What specifically are the most important prerequisites for retail companies to deliver true value to society as well as to shareholders? Dahlvig suggests four defining characteristics:

1. A vision with a social ambition combined with a strong value base
2. A business model wherein the product range and price are the main differentiators between you and the competition
3. Market leadership and a balanced global portfolio of markets that defines the company’s short- and long-term growth ambitions
4. Company controlled by enlightened and committed owner(s)

It is important to keep in mind Dahlvig’s clarification in the Introduction: “The purpose of this book is not to tell the story of Ikea. Instead, my intention is to use Ikea as an example of good corporate citizenship.” Throughout his lively and eloquent narrative, Dahlvig shares his insights and recommendations with regard to challenges and issues with which leaders of almost all organizations must now contend. For example, he rigorously examines these in Part 1:

o How to establish and then sustain a strong and dynamic corporate culture
o Why diversity (broadly defined) is a sound business choice
o Major objectives on an environmental agenda
o “Contributing to a better society” within competitive marketplace(s)

In Part 2 (Chapters 6-11), Dahlvig explains how to achieve differentiation through c0ontrol of the value chain; in Part 3 (Chapters 12-17), he shifts his attention to market leadership and a balanced market portfolio; then in Part 4, he examines a process by which to build for the long term, focusing on financials and the proper role of a CEO throughout that process.

Before concluding his book, Dahlvig reaffirms the importance of a company’s purpose: “to fulfill itself, to grow, and develop to the best it can be.” That means outstanding performance in several areas that include but are by no means limited to finance.

Change is the only constant in today’s global business world and it is certain to occur faster and with greater impact in months and years to come. “The c hanging values in society, the good example set by great entrepreneurs, and the business case for profitability resulting from being a good company are all powerful reasons for change.” They are obviously not the only reasons for change but I agree with Anders Dahlvig that they are the most important reasons.

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*** Why be Happy when you could be Normal? by Jeannette Winterson

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is a memoir by the author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit — in which we discover that her own childhood was not all that different of that of her heroine, with the same oppressive mother who laments her coming out as a lesbian with the comment that becomes the book title. The story gets somewhat less engrossing as the central character ages, but it also brings the interesting complications of caring for parents who were less than supportive.

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*** The Expats by Chris Pavone

I could cite plenty of small nits* with The Expats but I heartily recommend it as a thrilling, twisty tale of international intrigue that mixed good old-fashioned spy stories with matrimonial deception and the well-observed complications of moving a family overseas. After reading it, you will never marry an ex-CIA agent!

* Sample nit: there is a perfectly legit word in French for “city block”.

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