Monthly Archives: February 2015

* How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg

How Google Works proposes to explain the systems and methods that make Google so successful — but of course we all know that the secret sauce is to make lots of money (which the authors gleefully acknowledge), and that’s what the search engine does for Google. Still, we have all seen workplaces spoiled by riches, where mediocre players are allowed to stay and hire more mediocre players, so Google must be doing something right — and the authors rightly point out the fanatical attention to hiring that maintains a high level of skills and, more importantly, motivation. This is, likely, the secret sauce: employees who will spend their weekends working on a malfunctioning ad search, and triumphantly post their victory in a 5am email…  And Google does not reward such feats piecemeal either: there is no sharing in, financially, for such innovations, but it’s clear that glory accrues when assignments are meted out.

There are a few nuggets in the book, such as the idea to hold a daily meeting until an issue gets resolved (drudgery as a lever, nice!) but too often it veers into the obvious (e.g. “Don’t follow competition”). Google is very successful, but its secrets are not out.

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Filed under Non fiction

** Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong


Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence is a weighty tome filled with prodigious academic erudition, from Gilgamesh to the Greek to the Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In it reside prodigious amounts of violence, which the author painstakingly shows seems to stem more from the general context than religion itself. She also shows that religion occasionally seeks to pacify the world, although not, it appears, anywhere near often enough to counterbalance the many times it seeks the opposite.

The whole thing was all rather overwhelming and long and tedious for me to get through — and I doubt very much if the people who believe violence stems mostly from religion, especially those who believe that Islam specifically incites to violence, would either invest time and effort in this massive book, or embrace what they read it in. So I’m not sure whom to recommend the book to.  Careful thinkers who somehow think that religion is the main source of violence and who can tolerate 400 dense pages with the details on that 678 schism?

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Filed under Non fiction

* Some Luck by Jane Smiley


If you are (1) very patient (2) appreciate family sagas that closely match world events (3) can tolerate the forced structure of one chapter per year, you will enjoy  Some Luck. It’s full of small and delightful observations of family life, and it carefully describes life on the farm in the early 20th century — what hard work it was, not just the nostalgia-inducing romance of it.

That being said, I was bored.

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Filed under New fiction

** The Madwoman in the Volvo by Sandra Tsing Loh


The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones is an often hilarious account of the author’s battle with pre-menopause, complete with a divorce, an ill stepmother, a dying father, and much more. Her no-holds barred stories sometimes share a little too much information (her divorce) but are often right on (her love/exasperation for her teenage daughters). Inexplicably, she also tries to provide information about menopause, when she should have stuck with what she does best: observing the ridiculous in our lives.

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Filed under True story

*** How to Speak Money by John Lanchester


I knew that John Lanchester was a gifted novelist (at least with Capital, not so much with The Debt to Pleasure), but it turns out that he can also write a successful non-fiction book on a topic, finance, that could be terribly dry.  How to Speak Money: What the Money People Say–And What It Really Means starts with an essay about modern finance, perfectly readable for the lay person, and studded with informative and amusing footnotes (do read the footnotes!) From then on, the book is organized as a dictionary, which is also completely readable, with funny asides if no more footnotes.

The only less successful part of the book is the afterword, with a whine about the sad state of journalism — but you don’t have to read it.

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Filed under Non fiction

* Gray Mountain by John Grisham


Gray Mountain read, to me, as formulaic, cliched, and sexist. The best part of the story I thought was the beginning, when the heroine, an associate working at a large, prestigious New York law firm, is waiting for the expected layoffs and the atmosphere of secrets, greedy partners, and doom (it is 2008) is rendered in an excellent manner. After that, our heroine moves to a small Appalachian town to work in a legal aid office and we get hammered, page after page, by how evil coal-mining companies are (and how helpless our heroine is, alas). Not one of the author’s best.

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Filed under Mystery

*** As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley


Flavia de Luce is back, this time attending a mysterious boarding school in Canada. As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust features the requisite corpse but only one this time, and mot of the action swirls around the complicated real purpose of the school. Delicious, as always, even if the amount of chemistry experiments is way down from that in previous installments.

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Filed under Mystery