Monthly Archives: March 2014

** The Everything Store by Brad Stone


The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon is a classically built business story, reminding us that Amazon was not always the behemoth it is today but had humble beginnings when innovation consisted in procuring a table to pack books rather than having to pack on the floor! Apart from describing the move from packing tables to sophisticated fulfillment centers replete with robots to handle the packing, the author explains how Amazon bullied publishers into sweetheart deals on e-books and, infamously, patented the one-click buying protocol. He also tells the story of Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, somewhat awkwardly sandwiching it between company milestones.

 

Three things stood out for me in this book. One is the very deliberate business choices made by Amazon from the very start. We may think of Amazon as a bookstore, but books were chosen mainly for their fit with the online-selling model, not any particular love of books per se. Amazon is headquartered in Washington state to minimize the need of paying sales tax (although several states, including California, have successfully sued and won against Amazon, thereby changing its distribution model.)  Second,  Jeff Bezos made many, many bad bets along the way, including misguided investments in such notorious flops as pets.com, as well as internal failures such as an auction site to compete with eBay. And three, the most remarkable accomplishment of Amazon, foreshadowed in its early “innovation” of using packing tables, may well be its reinvention of the traditional way of preparing orders, replacing it with innovative software and robots.

That said, I found my attention wandering at times. The minutiae of which Marketing VP got yelled out at what meeting just did not seem that compelling to me…

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*** Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway


In Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, the heroine-detective solves the murder of a friend while ingesting large quantities of drugs and alcohol and ruminating about past cases, more or less personal, as is her usual style. Various only-in-San-Francisco characters provide an entertaining background to the mostly dark plot. It’s hard to believe that she can function as a human being, let alone as a detective, with so many chemicals in her body — but the story is nicely twisted.

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** Sorry! The English and Their Manners by Henry Hitchings


Sorry!: The English and Their Manners is a rather meandering history of manners view from a British perspective, which never manages to choose between a comprehensive history and a string of amusing anecdotes and therefore never gelled fully for me. That being said, I enjoyed reading about etiquette suggestions from yore (“Don’t encourage friends to smell stinky stuff” — who knew?) as well as the overly tactful comments of today (“We must have lunch” — as in never!) I just wish the book could have been more cohesive.

 

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The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles by Katherine Pancol


I should have listened to my sister, who discouraged me from reading  The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles. (I had seen a good review somewhere, I mercifully forget by whom.) In this highly improbable story, a woman is deserted by her philandering husband but finds riches, and eventually fame not to mention self-respect and a new husband, by penning a novel that is published under her sister’s name. So what did I find so painful about this book? For starters, the plot is utterly unbelievable. Here’s a supposedly serious researcher who writes a long novel by, apparently, never going to her job as a serious researcher. A sister who only pretends to write and is never found out despite her complete lack of knowledge of the novel. A twin brother mysteriously descended from the sky, for goodness’ sake! And that’s without mentioning the mysterious bastard of the British royal family. This is not a madcap comedy, this is madness.

On top of the unlikely plot, the details seem far-fetched and sometimes plain wrong. The younger daughter magically gets hired by a designer. What’s the likelihood of that? The sister’s husband hires her to do English-to-French translations when she has no experience — but bona fide translators abound in Paris. The train from Paris to the Alps stops at the wrong  station in Lyon.

And the descriptions are so replete with supposedly iconic French details that I had difficulty believing that the book was actually written and published in France, since it reads like a bad travel memoir, complete with regular gastronomic descriptions and chicly-dressed women. So despite the very delightful, but alas minor character of the grandfather’s devoted secretary and mistress, and the wholly readable, breezy writing style (judging from the English translation), I had to push myself to finish the book. Be warned, there are several sequels!

 

 

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** Knocking on Heaven’s Door by Katy Butler


In Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death, the author tells the story of her  father’s painful decline and death, and the strain it put on her and especially her mother. The author believes that the root of their problem lies in the implantation of a pacemaker following a stroke, pacemaker that will continue to stimulate his heart past his actual death. It’s not entirely clear that the pacemaker was the central problem, alas, old age and dementia seem to be more likely culprits, so her crusade to deactivate her father’s pacemaker and allow others to do the same when needed takes an outsized place in the book, in my mind, but she does a great job of describing the medical establishment’s reluctance to ever give up  on aggressive care, along with the tremendous burden and grief of caregivers.

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* Alena by Rachel Pastan


You may enjoy Alena if you liked Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, of which it is a rather faithful re-creation in a modern setting. You may also enjoy it if you like an excursion in the world of contemporary art complete with temperamental artists and wealthy patrons. I did not. Not that it’s  not beautifully written, but it’s just a little sad to know the ending from the very first page.

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*** Junkyard Planet by Adam Minter


If you are curious of what happens to the stuff that goes into your big blue trashcan, you will love Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, in which the author, who grew up in the business of junk trading and is now a journalist living in Shanghai, to boot, explores the economics and human aspects of recycling. We meet the hard-working Chinese scrap buyer who spends months on the road in the US, visiting scrap dealers who buy containers full of metal to be shipped across the Pacific, cheaply because on the return route of containers full of merchandise made in China. We meet the inventors of various machines created to separate plastic and metal, or one metal from another. We attend a contentious meeting between Chinese recyclers and US dealers right after the 2008 economic crisis and after the recyclers reneged on huge contracts. We also visit small Chinese cities where manual recycling makes for enormous public health problems, but the focus is on the underlying economics that drive the business.

Great fun to read, and the author’s perspective as a son of the business makes his access and depth of understanding uncommon.

 

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* Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill


Dept. of Speculation is the story, told in short, disconnected snippets, of a marriage coming apart (and perhaps, reviving?) It’s clever and often right on with its snapshots, whether it’s the skewering of self-help books or (especially) the tender retelling of the young daughter’s adventures. But it felt cold, remote, not really true.

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*** My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel


The author of My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind is anxious. Anxious enough to sweat himself into a near-swooning at his own wedding. Anxious enough to have spent decades perfecting a complex sequence of drugs and alcohol to be ingested before each public-speaking event. (It is amazing that he does speak in public, and regularly to boot, knowing the distress it poses him.) While describing his anxious habits in painful detail (let’s just say that the sweat is the least disturbing mode of excretion), he explores the origins of anxiety, and most particularly how the anxious parenting he received combined with a large dose of anxious genes, with spectacular results.

The book is a shining example of combining the personal and the educational. The one weaker area was its attempt at answering the question of why anxiety diagnoses have increased so dramatically in the past few decades. I could not push away the idea that perhaps it’s not that the modern world is so much harsher and anxiety-inducing, the hypothesis proposed by the author, but rather that anxiety has always been with us (and the author gives many historical examples, including Charles Darwin, who nevertheless accomplished a few great things for humanity) and that the pharmacological promises of the modern world make it more likely for sufferers to seek relief.

(I could not help marveling one more time at how decades of therapy seem to make so little difference! Surely there are some brilliant minds looking at CRF and ACTH-regulating mechanisms so we can hope to medicate the quick-on-the-trigger worriers into a more peaceful outlook.)

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* Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates


Carthage starts with the suspicious disappearance of a young college student in conflict with her family and the suspicious conduct of a vet who, just a few weeks before, was engaged to her sister. The rest of the book tells the story from the points of view of the various actors, a story I don’t want to give away but can be safely assumed to include her parents’ divorce.

The story did not really work for me, whether the unveiling of what really happened to the woman or the tortured life of the accused vet — and especially not the mother’s embracing of the vet while she knows that he probably killed her daughter. Beautifully written, with a strong plot, but I could never suspend disbelief to get carried by it.

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