Saturday, June 27, 2009

Harvard Business Review on Leading in Turbulent Times

Harvard Business Review on Leading in Turbulent Times is a collection of articles, originally published in the Harvard Business Review, meant to be read by corporate managers and other white collar workers. I am neither and I still found this book very interesting. Moving from one essay to the next, it quickly becomes apparent just how challenging being the head of a company or even a department can be, especially during times of economic crisis. The advice offered by one author is quickly contradicted by another, decisions that work for one example do not work for another, and in the end, the essays boil down to one thing: there are no easy answers. Especially none for challenging and difficult questions. Three essays especially stood out to me. Suzy Wetlaufer presents a fictional circumstance of a CEO who leads himself and his company into a corner and then five experts are given the opportunity to respond to the hypothetical situation with suggestions of what he can and should do to turn a bad situation around. I don’t know if it was because of the fictionalized story that preceded the advice or my amusement at how one expert would advise what another expert had warned against, but I found this article to be the most engaging. How Resilience Works by Diane L Coutu is the most universal of the articles, offering ideas that can be transferred from the office to every day life. I also enjoyed Joseph L Badaracco, Jr’s We Don’t Need Another Hero which was overflowing with examples from his seemingly vast experience. It was odd to read about how GMC is an example of success at the same time I am reading in the news about their filing for bankruptcy. And it is this factor that highlights the books greatest weakness. Businesses, in order to thrive, often need to be on the cutting edge of things. A book such as this, that gathers the best articles of the past to be highlighted thematically, can only end up dating itself far more quickly than a subscription to the publication itself. And to be completely honest, some of the information was over my head completely, having never been nor aspired to management in any of the corporate offices I have worked. Nevertheless, in spite of the relevancy to my personal life and/or professional experience, I found the collection a compelling read and would not hesitate to pick up other books in the series from my local library.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Finding Oz by Evan Schwartz

Finding Oz: How L Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story by Evan Schwartz is a solid blending of history and biography as the author, Schwartz, traces the life and experiences of L Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and many other books, some that take place in worlds other than Oz. Baum was born in interesting times, as they say, and the names of the famous and infamous litter the pages like confetti after a celebration. From suffragettes to politicians to literary and spiritual groundbreakers, the pages overflow with the significance of the era in which Baum lived. For the most part, I enjoyed this book but I found some of Schwartz’s suggestions for Baum’s inspiration a bit ridiculous. To say that Baum features an oil can in his most famous novel because the Baum family once produced a form of oil that people used to help grease axels on buggies and wagons is not interesting and I still don’t see a connection between his mother-in-law’s militant feminism and the witches that people the novel. There are times I had to wonder if Schwartz didn’t hurt himself while trying to reach for a connection, forcing relevance where none was needed; I found myself feeling a sympathy for all those non-English majors who suffer through literature courses in college. I remember hearing these students bitch and moan about how the reader could interpret the text to mean or say anything and, frankly, there are times I felt Schwartz was guilty of leaning too far into fantasy and not simply sticking with the facts. It’s unfortunate because the facts are fascinating in and of themselves. I wonder if Schwartz isn’t aching to write a novel and I wish he had saved some of his more fanciful explanations for such a novel, one that fleshes out the fact into glorious fiction. Nevertheless, I found this book to be a delight and would recommend it to anyone who is a fan of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. And for those who only know the MGM movie, I would recommend reading the novel first and then reading this book if so inclined.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion is a collection of essays Didion wrote in the 60s, a time in American history fraught with tension especially in California, where she was living at the time. There is a removed intimacy in the essays, a delicate balance of personal and professional that I can only state comes through in her voice. There is no attempt at weaving these essays together thematically; rather the collection reads like a fragmented mirror, shards of glass reflecting one part of an overall story. Piece the fragments together and you get nothing more than a broken mirror that cannot reflect clearly and therein lies the ultimate triumph of this brilliant collection. There is no attempt at cohesion because the essays are about a time when the country itself was frankly falling apart. Most remarkable is how Didion infuses each subject with a sincerity bordering on love. When she writes about John Wayne, even the disenchanted reader can’t help but find herself (because I am speaking of myself here) finding some modicum of admiration bubbling up. Joan Baez and Howard Hughes both emerge on the page in their still sparkling image, not yet faded into forgetfulness due to changing morays or paranoid hermitic living. And in spite of this compassion she exposes most of these people, from the idealistic hippies of the 60s to the imperialistic wealthy residents of Hawaii, as wonderfully flawed, unable to see themselves clearly. But there is no arrogance in this, for Didion dares to turn the mirror on herself and soon exposes her own inability to see herself clearly. When she writes in the second section about how her notebook would offer no insight or anything of significance to anyone but herself, the reader is compelled to agree; until by the third section where Didion shares glimpses of her notebook, without philosophizing about the content or expounding on the moment in which the section was written, and the reader is devouring with a curious eagerness the very thing she had protested nobody else would or could find edifying. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of essays and feel a gratitude that Didion’s voice was in the right place at the right time and that she had the commitment to share herself through sharing her experiences and encounters with others. It’s a shame that more collections like this are not being published and that writers are encouraged to find a personal scar, shred that open until it bleeds onto the page to offer the reader yet another memoir. How exciting it would be to see some of the memoirists step aside just enough to share the spotlight because, in the end, the light would beam brightest on the one who does the writing. And now I am all the more eager to read her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. Yes, I see the irony of this statement. Take it for what it is and enjoy.