Tuesday, September 29, 2015

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid was a novel that traces through someone's life born into third-world poverty.

The book is nominally about business and making a living, and includes the quote "to become filthy rich in rising Asia, sooner or later you must work for yourself," but is also very much about someone making a life and doing what they can born into brutal circumstances. As part of that, Hamid's work seems to cover that while we can influence many things in our lives, it's also often more a case of things happen to us and then we have to respond.

Two nonfiction authors that came to mind for me from reading Hamid's novel were John Gardner and Katherine Boo, with Gardner writing of someone building their life in a speech I posted on years ago and Boo doing the sensational Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a book that I read and wrote about in 2013 and which features the subtitle Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.

Hamid's novel featured some lyrical and almost poetic language in places, particularly as the story reached its conclusion, with the final sentence of the book below...

And she comes to you, and she does not speak, and the others do not notice her, and she takes your hand, and you ready yourself to die, eyes open, aware this is all an illusion, a last aroma cast up by the chemical stew that is your brain, which will soon cease to function, and there will be nothing, and you are ready, ready to die well, ready to die like a man, like a woman, like a human, for despite all else you have loved, you have loved your father and your mother and your brother and your sister and your son and yes, your ex-wife, and you have loved the pretty girl, you have been beyond yourself, and so you have courage, and you have dignity, and you have calmness and in the face of terror, and awe, and the pretty girl holds your hand, and you contain her, and this book, and me writing it, and I too contain you, who may not yet even be born, you inside me inside you, though not in a creepy way, and so may you, may I, may we, so may all of us confront the end.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson is the third novel in the Millennium Series on main characters Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist with the first two The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire.

All three books were really entertaining and it makes me curious about The Girl in the Spider's Web, another novel about Salander and Blomkvist, this written by David Lagercrantz a decade after Larsson's death.

Great stories on family - Warren about C.J. Chivers & Joe Posnanski about his daughter

Two pieces of writing I've read fairly recently and keep thinking on both deal with family and our interactions with and what we do for our children.

The one that's directly on the subject is by Joe Posnanski with "An Evening Drive" posted to his personal website. About the writer with his 14 year-old daughter, it's great stuff that brings to mind past blog posts from Posnanski on his daughters like "I Hope You’re Happy With Your Husband" and "Katie the Prefect."

The other piece to note here is "Why the Best War Reporter in a Generation Had to Suddenly Stop" by Mark Warren for Esquire. It's written about a writer I've a few times linked to pieces by in C.J. Chivers and while the entire feature by Warren a fascinating one, the part that gets me is about what led Chivers to walking away from the incredibly dangerous task of war reporting...

"Before leaving for his last trip to Iraq last year, he and Suzanne and two of their sons were sitting around the dinner table playing pitch when one of his boys started to itch terribly. He was suddenly covered in hives from head to toe. They called the family doctor, who was puzzled because he could find no clear medical reason for the hives. There was no indication of an infection, and the hives didn't resemble the kind caused by allergy. A couple days later, Chivers left on his trip to Iraq. It was to be a short assignment—three weeks or so. While there, he spoke regularly with Suzanne, who said their son's rash had not gone away. Then, on the day he arrived home, the hives disappeared, suddenly and completely.

Chivers consulted the doctor, who told him that the rash was almost certainly an autoimmune miscue and was probably caused by terror. His son had been afraid for his father's life.

'A switch went off at that moment for me. You know...I mean, I realized I couldn't do that to him. And for a few weeks, I quietly argued with myself about this and tried to find a way to mentally, to see if I could get the switch back into its old position. I remember lying in bed night after night saying, I think that's it. I think I'm done.'

Chivers talked to his brother, also a former Marine, and he said, 'If your kid's sick and you know the medicine that will heal him, do you withhold it?'"

Monday, September 21, 2015

Interesting business writing - on Uber, Slack, Google Cardboard, and financial manipulation

Recently there were a few excellent pieces of business writing from the latest issues of Fast Company and Bloomberg Businessweek.

From Businessweek was the cover story "Was Tom Hayes Running the Biggest Financial Conspiracy in History?" by Liam Vaughan and Gavin Finch. About manipulation of the Libor rate that banks use to borrow money from each other, it's a tremendously interesting look at widespread malfeasance and the role of one man in particular in it.

The Fast Company cover story was written by Max Chafkin with "What Makes Uber Run" on the lightening-fast growing transportation company and it's founder and CEO, Travis Kalanick. Additionally from this issue of FC was a solid feature by Rick Tetzeli titled "Slack's Workplace Revolution" on the office communication software company and a short missive on the low-cost virtual reality device, Google Cardboard.

Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson

Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson was a really entertaining book about accomplished scuba diving deep sea explorers and the search for a sunken pirate ship, the Golden Fleece, a vessel helmed by pirate Joseph Bannister during the golden age of piracy between 1650 and 1720.

Only one pirate shipwreck had been previously discovered and the book was very history-focused with divers John Chatterton and John Mattera trying to figure out Bannister in order to discern where he may have taken his ship and it was ultimately sunk. Chatterton was featured in Kurson's book Shadow Divers and he and Mattera were told about the Fleece by legendary treasure hunter Tracy Bowden. The deal that Bowden made is he'd give the two men 20% of the Fleece if they found it for him and Kurson repeatedly wrote, though, of how for the two searchers, it was more about the quest for discovery than riches.

The stories of both Chatterton and Mattera are remarkable, with Chatterton volunteering to serve as a medic in Vietnam and who led patrols there and Mattera growing up around the New York mafia and then becoming a cop, contractor for the U.S. government and then executive & celebrity bodyguard. Kurson also recounted how while searching for the Fleece, twice the men faced potential death twice from armed bandits in the Dominican.

While the book was excellent overall, the ending with litigation rearing it's head felt somewhat disappointing, more a function, though, of how true stories sometimes go than anything Kurson should have done different in the writing.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Current writers whose work I look for

Related to a post I did back in 2011 titled "Waiting on Writing: Good Authors - Good Books," I wanted to list out the current writers whose work I most look for.

So, with the arbitrarily chosen cut-off line at 22 people, here's the alphabetical list (which of course may be overlooking someone):

Ashlee Vance, Atul Gawande
Bill Bryson, Brad Stone
Chris Ballard, Chris Jones
David Von Drehle
Eli Saslow, Erik Larson
J.R. Moehringer, Jason Fagone, Joe Klein, Joe Posnanski, Justin Heckert
Lee Jenkins
Michael Lewis, Michael Paterniti
S.L. Price, Susan Casey
Tom Junod, Tom Verducci
Wright Thompson

Voices in the Ocean by Susan Casey

Voices in the Ocean by Susan Casey was a solid book on how we as a people treat the environment, animals in it and specifically as the subject of this book, dolphins.

I was excited for the book after loving Casey's previous books, The Devil's Teeth and The Wave, which I wrote about in 2010, and this one was well-written and interesting, but also depressing.

Casey covers how dolphins are incredibly smart creatures, but oftentimes are either treated poorly for our amusement in places like traditional marine parks, subject to the effects of sonar tests conducted by the U.S. Navy, or slaughtered by people to make a few dollars, even to the point of basically putting a ransom on their heads. From places like the town of Taiji, Japan, where The Cove was set, to the Solomon Islands off Australia, Casey shows the atrocities people will commit against dolphins.

Casey writes a really thorough book that's as appreciation of dolphins, and also lament for them.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Great business writing - on MLB Advanced Media, Tesla, Amazon, and working a career

There's been some really interesting business writing lately to note here, including several company profiles as well as pieces around the topic of the work people put into their jobs.

The first company profile to mention was for The Verge by Ben Popper with "The Changeup: How baseball’s tech team built the future of television," a fascinating piece on Major League Baseball Advanced Media. The company (known also as BAM) started out as MLB's technology division and has since done extensive work for HBO, just signed a technology and rights holder deal with the NHL, and is almost certain to spin off from MLB into it's own company.

Another profile I found excellent was "Decoding Tesla's Secret Formula" by Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen for Forbes Magazine. The company a fascinating one to me and as with other piece I've read on Tesla, this story paints a picture of the cars as remarkable feats of engineering.

Additionally of interest recently was another solid company profile, "Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace," one that has in the past week generated a huge amount of discussion. For the New York Times by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, the piece has the subtitle "The company is conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve it's ever-expanding ambitions." I found it to be a well-balanced story and part of me reads it and thinks that it fine for people to be pushed so hard if those employees feel the positives outweigh the negatives from the hours and pressure. However, the larger part of me then thinks of how unsustainable it seems to have a large company made up of people either young enough to not have family to go to after work or older people willing to spend so much time in pursuit of work goals and away from family. It just feels like that abandonment of balance is eventually going have a detrimental impact on one's work. Granted, those people can then be forced out when their work suffers, but it's a cycle that it seems would eventually hit it's limits and negatively impact the company.

A couple of other pieces that the Amazon story inspired and which I found interesting were "Jeff Bezos and the Amazon Way," a column by Joe Nocera for the New York Times and "Work Hard, Live Well," published to Medium by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz. The Nocera commentary is about Amazon following the lead of Bezos and that from Moskovitz on the negatives, to both employees and the company itself, that can come from too many hours put into work.

Related to the idea of how someone goes about their job, there was a great career advice post to his blog done last month by entrepreneur and angel investor Jason Calacanis"The most important piece of advice for folks starting their careers" contains a number of interesting and highly relevant suggestions. To say it's simply a counter-argument to the idea of balance in work and life would be to miss many of the ideas Calacanis puts forth, but a theme throughout his post is about hustle and how to succeed especially when starting out in something, you gotta hustle.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Great sports stories - by Bissinger, Beech, Delle Donne & Doyel

Some fairly recent sports writing to note here included ones were about heartwarming and amazing stories as well as two pieces that very much brought to mind past writing I've posted on.

Buzz Bissinger for Sports Illustrated had an excerpt from the 25th anniversary edition of Friday Night Lights, a fantastic book that spawned a movie, television series and follow-up ebook that I wrote about two years ago.

Also from SI was the Mark Beech feature "Catching up with the dogs of Sochi," about dogs rescued out of the Russia Olympics by people including snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis, hockey players David Backes and Kelli Stack and slopestyle skier Gus Kenworthy.

Another recent piece that reminded me of past writing on the topic was "Lizzie" by Elena Delle Donne for The Players Tribune. Delle Donne is someone I last wrote about two years ago and the story of she, her sister, and rest of their family is a remarkable one.

Also involving a sibling was the absolutely wild piece "Officer back on the streets, with a story to tell" by Gregg Doyel for the Indianapolis Star. About Indianapolis-area police office Marty Dulworth, it's an amazing story told very well by Doyel.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides was an excellent adventure yarn with the subtitle The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette.

Sides is an author who I first learned about from his 2013 Outside Magazine piece "Wake-Up Call: Surviving an Attack by Flesh-Eating Bacteria" and in his book on the Jeanette and her men getting trapped in the ice north of Siberia, he wrote a fascinating tale.

I'm definitely glad to have read the book and additional information can be found in this Wall Street Journal book review by Howard Schneider.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Great New York Times writing - by Cook, McFadden, Dove, Mooallem, and Weiner

There's been some remarkable writing for the the New York Times I've seen over the past few weeks, including four recently done stories and one from 2012 that I not long ago saw linked to on Twitter.

The first story to note here was written by Gareth Cook with "The Singular Mind of Terry Tao," an interesting account of a math genius who also happens to be very normal and grounded.

The three other recent Times pieces share the common bond of being about people doing great things for others. "Nicolas Winton, Rescuer of 669 Children from Holocaust, Dies at 106" was an obituary written by Robert McFadden"Black South Carolina Trooper Explains Why He Helped a White Supremacist" a piece by Robert Dove and for the New York Times Magazine was "You Just Got Out of Prison.Now What" by Jon Mooallem. This last piece has the subtitle "Carlos and Ruby are two ex-convicts with a simple mission: picking up inmates on the day they're released from prison and guiding them through a changed world" and is just a very cool read.

The last piece to mention was by Eric Weiner from 2012 with "Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer," a piece about "thin places," those that as Weiner writes "transform us - or, more accurately, unmask us. In thin places, we become our more essential selves."

Business writing - on Mark Hurd, writing code, painting for fun, and high-priced medicine

Some really solid business stories over the past several months included a profile from Fortune Magazine and three different features from Bloomberg Businessweek.

The Fortune piece was by Adam Lashinsky with "The redemption of Oracle's Mark Hurd" and the Businessweek stories covered a lot of ground with one a magazine issue-length look at code, one a piece on painting and drinking for fun and one about an extremely expensive, and effective, treatment for hepatitis C.

The Businessweek pieces are "What is Code?" by Paul Ford, "How Paint Nite Is Saving the American Bar" by Joel Stein, and "Pharma Execs Don't Know Why Anyone Is Upset by a $94,500 Miracle Cure" by Paul Barrett and Robert Langreth. All are interesting and the Barrett and Langreth piece includes below...

"Gilead Sciences of Foster City, Calif., introduced Harvoni, which completely cures the vast majority of people with the most common type of hepatitis C and does it in just three months with few significant side effects. Gilead charges $94,500 for the 12-week treatment."

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild by Cheryl Strayed was a memoir of Strayed's life and her 1,100 mile hike on the Pacific Coast Trail and the book struck me as excellent for both the quality of writing and content it covers.

Her mother died when Strayed was 22 and then at 26, and coming off a failed marriage and time on heroin, she embarked on hiking the trail.

Even if someone may not have their life situation match up with that of Strayed's, the book is lyrically written and tremendously interesting from the perspective of someone overcoming obstacles in addition to simply a great piece of outdoor writing.

Also, I found fascinating how the movie (which I saw prior to reading the book) was also really good, and very true to Strayed's writing in the book.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Great sports writing about the Golden State Warriors - by Jenkins, Ballard, & Posnanski

There was a series of great pieces over the past few weeks on the Golden State Warriors and their championship-winning team and players.

Lee Jenkins wrote a number of them for Sports Illustrated with the June 8th issue having "Oracle Arena brings the noise for an NBA Finals worth screaming about," "Steve Kerr: The Warriors' Ringmaster" for the June 15th and "Andre and the Giant: How one veteran helped the Warriors turn the Finals" published in the June 22nd issue.

Additionally, Jenkins for the SI website wrote "Golden Hours: Inside the Warriors' nightlong NBA Finals celebration" after the series-clinching win over the Cavilers.

Also, two great pieces to note here from other writers were "Pursuit of perfection: Jerry West's fire burns as deep as ever with Warriors" by Chris Ballard for the SI site prior to the Finals and then after they were over, Joe Posnanski doing "The Right Steph" for the NBC Sports website.

It's a bit of a laundry list of pieces, but some great writing from Jenkins, Ballard and Posnanski on the Warriors.

On the Burning Edge by Kyle Dickman

On the Burning Edge by Kyle Dickman was a good book about the profession of firefighting and 2013 tragedy on the Yarnell Hill Fire where 19 hotshots lost their lives outside Prescott, AZ. Shortly after the deaths I did the post "Writing on Hotshot firefighters - by Kyle Dickman & Molly Hennessy-Fiske" linking to a few different pieces and then several months later Dickman wrote "19: The True Story of the Yarnell Hill Fire" for Outside Magazine, a feature which then led to him writing On the Burning Edge.

The book struck me as extensively reported and about people, circumstances and decisions. Dickman covers how fires are good in thinning out forests, but the drive to protect homes has led to a policy of fire suppression and increased the chances of cataclysmic blazes when they're not put out early. Additionally noted in the book is that few communities require defensible space around houses.

The 19 who died in the Yarnell Hill Fire were all part of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and it was interesting reading how they were a municipal hotshot team rather than forest service, and any role that may have played in Granite Mountain superintendent Eric Marsh being aggressive during the fire and leading the other 18 from a position of already burned over safety and attempting to move to a new location. Additionally noted by Dickman was some confusion and poor communication around the fighting of the Yarnell Hill Fire as it grew larger and more resources arrived to battle it.

The result of the fire left behind only one member of the Granite Mountain team, Brendan "Donut" McDonough who was serving as a looking apart from the rest, and two other hotshots who left Granite Mountain in the weeks prior due to medical and family reasons. It was a solid book from Dickman and included poignant description of people paying their respects roadside as the 19 men first were transported to Phoenix after their deaths and then back to Prescott two days later.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Tiger by John Vaillant

The Tiger by John Vaillant was a really good work of non-fiction about a man-eating Amur (Siberian) tiger in the Bikin River Valley in Far Eastern Russia in the Winter of 1997.

The book was just as much about the region as about the tiger itself and it was fascinating reading how many in the area forced to scratch out an existence living off the deep forest or taiga, with the effects of perestroika and it's freedoms not helping them at all.

In relation to tigers, Vaillant describes well the relationships between people and the animals and how they can co-exist, but also how the actions of people often throw that relationship out of balance.

It was an excellent book and more about it can be found in a New York Times review by Edward Lewine.