I loved The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road. Written (well! unlike many bios) by a truck driver who specializes in so-called executive moves that can involve Chinese antiques and demanding owners, it takes us behind the scenes of the trucking industry. It starts with a terrifying descent from a Rockies pass (did you ever wonder about those runaway truck ramps? they don’t do much, apparently) but he also talks about truck stops, truckers’ finances, and the funny rivalries between sub-specialties (for some reason movers are despised).
The best parts of the book for me were his personal history and the complex processes that run the moving business. He describes how he got into trucking in the first place (dropping out of a fine college) and how each long-distance move, even in the rarefied executive realm, places the hauler in the center of a complex web of dispatchers, packers, loaders, and unloaders. A very satisfying look at an industry and a lifestyle I did not know much about.
Seamlessly moving from music to politics, movies, and fine art, Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction explores the uncertain phenomenon of fame — and as you may surmise there is a large dash of luck in every hit. Still, the most intriguing aspect of popularity is the balance between innovation and familiarity, since humans need a bit of both. The author illustrates his argument with fresh, deftly told stories, and he is not afraid to expose the darker side of applying the psychological methods he explains. The book is easy to read but the ideas will stay with you.
The subtitle of Faster, Higher, Farther: The Volkswagen Scandal is somewhat misleading since the author, in fact, tells the entire story of Volkswagen — and I suppose he would argue that we need the entire story to comprehend the scandal. Reaching back into Nazi territory may be taking it a bit far, but it certainly helps understand the family dynasty, and dynamics, which created a culture of authority and submission to the leader that led to pressures to evade the US emissions tests. (In an American story, the same behaviors would likely be characterized as bowing to the pressure of the market.)
The most interesting part of the story for me was the family story, of how the various cousins participated, or not, in the company and how the family managed to keep control of the voting shares.
For me, the best part of Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair was the description of the many businesses around the buying and selling of hair to make wigs. Some scenes are surreal, whether the descriptions of the Chinese factories where custom toupees are made, by hand, on heads reconstituted from measurements taken thousands of miles away, or the Indian temple tonsure halls where devotees are shaven for religious practices (and the hair promptly sold). It’s pretty clear that the hair business, like many others, is one where poor people grow hair (or save the hair brushed away by their combs!) to be sold to the rich.
The book goes further, exposing the politics of women’s hair, which sometimes must be covered, or shaven, or hidden under a wig, or never covered by a wig depending on customs and religion. And did you know that there are websites where hair is auctioned while still on the head of the seller? So much to learn!
Always a Bridesmaid (for Hire): Stories on Growing Up, Looking for Love, and Walking Down the Aisle for Complete Strangers start with the humorous description of the author’s realization that she is a very good bridesmaid and she might be able to sell her services. And she does! After a lark of a Craigslist message and a whirlwind of media interviews, she has herself a business. If the book stopped there, it would be hilarious. As the chapters drone on and we hear about the adventures of inebriated groomsmen, missing bridesmaid dresses, and, saddest of all, the brides who pretend that their for-hire bridesmaid is not for hire, it’s decidedly less entertaining.
The Notorious Mrs. Clem: Murder and Money in the Gilded Age takes us to Indianapolis in the late 19th century and the nascent Indianapolis to observe a famous set of trials that tried (and failed) to establish whether a shady woman entrepreneur had conspired to kill her partner and his wife. The focus is on the accused, a woman with undeniable business skills and also an undeniable penchant for Ponzi schemes and shady dealings. The author wants us to focus on the prejudices against women who did not hew to traditional female roles, although it’s not clear that the trial hinged on them (the coverage of the trials certainly did!) Her insistence on the woman-victim theme and the detailed descriptions of each trial wore me out.
The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads tells the story of advertising, from 19th century newspaper ads to today. What I found fascinating about the book is how technology and persuasion techniques grew together, with developments in either field spurring changes in the other. So when the post office established fast and cheap distribution, pamphlets soon followed. TV programs were organized around advertising needs. Zip codes soon allowed advertising to target specific geographies. And of course Facebook and its ilk now allow personalized ads.
The book is peppered with fun facts. For example, the remote control was invented to “block” ads (in fact, to be able to turn down the sound during commercials), and the first spam message was send (IN ALL CAPS) in 1978, way before the average consumer was even aware of email. I highly recommend this well-written and lively story.