Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy

As a kid, I wanted nothing more than to be a private detective. I ate up mystery books like the candy I would sneak from the cupboard; I wanted to dust everything for fingerprints; my cousin Lee and I opened our own detective agency, and when we didn’t get any business, we made up criminals to catch. So when I picked up Eamon Javers’s book Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy and learned that it was about corporate spies (which are like the advanced version of the private detective), I was thrilled.

Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy is separated into two parts: the first half focuses on the history of private detectives/spies, and the second focuses on the techniques used by these spies (and, randomly, a little bit about Russian spies). Though both sections were incredibly interesting, the first part was unquestionably my favorite. Javers travels through history, focusing on a particular group of spies or a certain incident in each chapter of the section. The chapter that drew my interest the most was “The Chocolate War,” which centers on the battle between Mars and Nestle over the safety of the Nestle Magic, a hollow chocolate ball with a toy in the center. Though I don’t remember the drama over this candy, I do remember buying my share of the “Wonderballs,” and, only a few months ago, wondered what ever happened to them. It was exciting when Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy answered that question.

However, though the subject matter was exciting and engaging, Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy could’ve used another draft. Its organization was weak, jumping from chapter to chapter without transition, and, at times, it was difficult to keep track of the people Javers was talking about. Also, aside from the “spy” part, I don’t see how the title fits the book.

That being said, I still recommend Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy if you are interested in corporate espionage. Despite the weaknesses in the structure and writing of the book, I’m glad I read it. I give it a 3/5, and it almost got a four.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Citizens of London

I had an interesting relationship with Lynne Olson’s book Citizens of London. Sometimes I was drawn into what she was writing. Sometimes I was so bored with it, I would count the number of pages I had left in the chapter.

Citizens of London is a historical book about the relationship between the United States and London during World War II. The bulk of the book takes place in London (as the title suggests) and it focuses especially on John “Gil” Winant (US Ambassador to London), Edward Murrow (CBS correspondent), FDR, and Winston Churchill.

Olson is a good writer. She elegantly weaves in quotes with her writings and manages to flow from one thing to another without abrupt shifts. When she was talking about subjects that interested me—like the living conditions of wartime London or the various affairs Churchill’s family members had with Americans – I was a fan of Citizens of London. However, at least half of the book was talking about meetings between various US and British governmental authorities, a subject that I found dry, and one her adept writing could not save.

I give the book a 3/5. Though it wasn’t one that I loved, Olson gave a thorough and well-written description of Americans in WWII London.

Watch Jon Stewart’s Interview with Lynne Olson

Buy the Book

Monday, April 19, 2010

The McVeigh Tapes

I just finished watching the documentary The McVeigh Tapes on the Rachel Maddow Show. The two-hour program is, in one word, disturbing.

The documentary centers on recordings of Timothy McVeigh’s interviews with reporter Lou Michel, where McVeigh discusses his bombing of the Murrah Federal Building. Using the recordings of McVeigh and commentary from reporters, investigators and bombing victims, the documentary goes through McVeigh’s personal history, the planning and execution the Oklahoma City Bombing, and the aftermath of the bombing, both for McVeigh and the victims.

When McVeigh bombed the Federal Building on April 19, 1995, I was six and completely sheltered from what happened. Though I’ve learned the basics of what happened, it’s always been in a paragraph or two in a textbook. Seeing the visuals of the bombing, hearing the voice of the killer hits you in a different way. Watching this documentary made me fully understand that the attack was real.

What struck me the most was the lack of remorse McVeigh felt. He completely writes off any lives that were lost and maintains that it was worth it to get his anti-government message across.

The subject matter makes it difficult for me to give an accurate, unbiased review of the documentary as a whole, but I’m going to give it a go. The McVeigh Tapes is interesting, but manages to avoid being sensational. As I said earlier, it is disturbing, and is certainly not “enjoyable” to watch, but the tone fits the topic. I have one minor complaint; many of the visuals of the documentary are re-enactments where CGI is used to put in McVeigh’s face. Though I’m not sure what else they would use for images, as many of the actions portrayed were not recorded, I found the CGI face distracting.

I give The McVeigh Tapes a 4/5. Though I wouldn’t recommend the documentary unless the Oklahoma City Bombing is of particular interest to you, The McVeigh Tapes is well done and informative. I’m glad I watched it, even though it’s left me feeling depressed and off-balance.

Watch Jon Stewart's interview with Rachel Maddow

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Why the Daily Show?

I’m currently reading Citizens of London, and I hope to have a review by the end of the week. But I’ve been meaning to write something a little different on this blog. This isn’t a review, but it answers the question “Why the Daily Show?" And to get there, I’ve got to go back three and a half years.

It is about 10:45 on my first day of college, and I am terrified. I am prone to homesickness anyways, and here I am, in a suite with five girls I’ve known for maybe 8 hours, and I’m not going to see my parents for a month. It’s a minor miracle that I’m not bawling.

There’s a knock on the door. I open it to reveal boys, two scruffy looking guys. I can tell they aren’t freshmen—they aren’t wearing their keys on lanyards around their necks or carrying the yellow folders filled with schedules and maps that we freshman have been holding like they are superglued to our hands.

“Youafreshman?” One of the boys asks, making the sentence all one word.

I nod.

“Well, dis-orientation parties start tonight at the soccer house.”

The other boy chimes in with directions, but I’m not paying attention. In addition to being scared of living with strangers and not seeing my family, I am also afraid of alcohol and boys. I just look at them until they leave. The presence of those guys made me so nervous, I don’t even recognize the pun of the party name until I tell my roommates about it a minute later. But I hate puns, and I don’t laugh.

“I hope you guys didn’t want to go to this disorientation thing. I forget where they said it was.”

“No,” Theresa, my roommate says, “We’re gonna watch The Daily Show. Want to join?”

I have never heard of the Daily Show. Really, I want to go to bed. But suddenly I’m filled with a new determination. Maybe going to a party with alcohol and boys is too big a step, but I am going to make friends with my roommates, dammit!

So Devika, Theresa, Natalia, and I all sit on Devika’s bed and begin to watch the show. And I eat it up. I learn what’s happening in the world, I laugh, I instantly fall in love with Jon Stewart. That perplexes me a bit, as he is the same age as my mom, but he is funny and has a long nose—I can’t resist. I don’t think about home for half an hour.

After the show is over (or maybe after Colbert, I don’t remember) we stay in Devika’s room and talk for awhile. I go to bed before the others – we have class the next day, and I’m tired. But I don’t cry that night. And the next night, at 11, we turn on The Daily Show. And the next night. And it becomes a ritual.

Midway through that freshman year, we talk about taking a road trip to New York after we graduate. We want to watch the show live.

Now, here I am, two months before graduation. I don’t think the trip is going to happen. But we still watch The Daily Show together. I can’t imagine college without it.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Rediscovering Values

Guess what. Turns out the book I read was called Rediscovering Values, not Comeback America (though it is by Jim Wallis). Since I got the book through interlibrary loans (a wonderful service that allows libraries across the county--and world-- to share books with each other) there was a piece of paper with loan info over the cover and I didn't read the title. But how I managed to think it was Comeback America despite it being a book all about rediscovering values is a mystery.

But anyway, Jim Wallis is a well-known preacher (though I hadn't heard of him before this challenge) and his book, as you may guess from the title, is about how Americans need to rediscover values. More specifically, he talks about how Wall Street's poor values (such as greed) helped to lead us into our current economic state, and how, rather than returning to normal when the economy improves, we should all re-evaluate our lives and what we see as most important.

I was wary about picking up a book written by a prominent preacher. I did not want to be preached at. And though each chapter of Wallis's book could be interpreted as individual sermons (mixing stories of the economy with stories from the bible and stories from ordinary people's lives), and though he certainly instructed readers on things they should be doing, he didn't proselytize. Though that could have been because the book seemed aimed at a religious audience, I like to think it's because Wallis wanted his book to be inclusive.

The feeling I got most out of reading Rediscovering Values was that I'd like to have a conversation with Wallis. He seemed like a genuine, good guy and someone, who despite having some views contrary to my own, would have a respectful dialogue about any issue. I suppose you could call Rediscovering Values one side of a potential conversation.

As a whole, Wallis is a fine writer, not super, not terrible (though he did repeat himself a bit). But I didn't get the sense that he was aiming to write beautiful sentences: instead he wanted to get his ideas across. Also, he had a lot of interesting facts peppered throughout the book, wrote a chapter on Detroit, and spent a few pages discussing Jon Stewart's interview with Jim Cramer (which you can watch here). So I give the book a 3/5. If I were asked for a book recommendation, it probably wouldn't come up, but I definitely wouldn't dissuade you from picking it up.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Date Night

I've gotten to the point that whenever I see I preview for a movie I think either, "I want to see that, I hope it's on the Daily Show" or "Man oh man, I sure hope that's not on the Daily Show." Though there have definitely been more of the latter (Tooth Fairy and Remember Me for example), Date Night was a movie I was truly looking forward to.

I love Steve Carell and Tina Fey, and I went into the movie with ridiculously high expectations. Though Date Night didn't quite reach them, it was still a very funny movie and worth seeing.

I'm sure you've seen the previews and know the premise, but for those who have been sitting in a cave for the past two months (and have just come back into the modern world and decided the first website they should check out is the Daily Shill) I'll give a quick summary. Carell and Fey play the Fosters, a couple whose marriage has gotten boring and predictable. During a date night, they take another couple's reservation, claiming that they are the Tripplehorns. This leads to the two being chased by bad guys who don't believe the Fosters when the argue that they are not really the Tripplehorns. Dangerous hijinks and hilarity ensue, and the Foster's marriage is spiced up in the process.

One of my worries, when I go to see a funny movie, is that the only funny bits were in the trailer. That is not the case for Date Night -- I found myself laughing out loud many times. Though the "let's talk about our marriage" moments that occurred a few times throughout the movie got a bit long and boring, I understand they were necessary to showing the Foster's progression as a couple (though maybe they could have been shorter).

I give Date Night a 4/5. It's funny, exciting, and not too long. Plus, the scene where Carell and Fey try to pole dance is, in itself, worth the price of admission.

And come back tomorrow for my review of Jim Wallis's book Comeback America. (Lies. The book is actually Rediscovering Values. Comeback America is by David Walker and I have not read it yet)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Crash Course

I am not a car person. I hate driving, and I’m terrible at matching cars with their names. But I do live in Michigan, and I know many people whose families work for the auto industry, so I figured it’d be good for me to read Paul Ingrassia’s book Crash Course, even if I wasn’t enthralled by the subject matter.

But, as a whole, the book wasn’t boring. Ingrassia takes the reader through the history of the US auto industry (throwing in foreign auto companies throughout because they’re certainly relevant), and it turns out that life among the Big Three is pretty dramatic. CEOs get fired, Japanese companies get more of the market, and workers who stop working still get paid. And even though cars play a central role, it’s not really a book about the cars themselves.

It is the chronology that keeps Crash Course together – Ingrassia frequently jumps back and forth between companies, sometimes spending just a short paragraph with one before moving onto another. Mainly I liked the scattered style – it kept the book from getting boring. However, sometimes due to the jumps, I’d have a hard time keeping track of which company (or person) Ingrassia was talking about.

I learned a lot, though, from reading Crash Course. The book makes it abundantly clear how the auto industry has gotten to its current (dismal) state, and though the information it shares is often depressing and frustrating, I’m glad to have read it.

I give Crash Course a 3/5 (though it was practically a four). I went with a three because at times I did get a little bored and because I grew tired of the “company as a sinking boat” metaphor.

Watch Jon Stewart's Interview with Paul Ingrassia

Buy the Book

Come back on Tuesday, and I'll let you know what I thought of Date Night.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Checklist Manifesto

When Jon Stewart interviewed Atul Gawande about his book The Checklist Manifesto, I was watching the show with my friend Amanda. After the interview, Amanda said, "Boy that book sounds boring," at the same time as I said, "Wow, this book is going to be interesting." Luckily, my prediction was the correct one.

True, I'm predisposed to like this book: I make myself checklists on a regular basis, and I love rules. However, even if you aren't as list-happy as I am, you could definitely get into The Checklist Manifesto.

The Checklist Manifesto mainly deals with the checklist in relation to surgery. Gawande begins by sharing the story of a five-item checklist that Peter Pronovost, a critical care specialist at John Hopkins Hospital, developed to reduce central line infections (Spoiler Alert: This checklist worked amazingly, decreasing the infection rate of the Michigan Hospital that tested it by 66%). Additionally, much of the book focuses on Gawande's creation of a 19-item checklist for all surgeries. However, Gawande also spends time in other fields where checklists play a large role, including aviation and construction.

Before picking up The Checklist Manifesto, though I knew I was interested in the subject matter, I was a little concerned about the writing style; after all, Gawande's primary career is a surgeon, not a writer. I had nothing to worry about though. Gawande writes in an easy-to-understand, engaging style, telling thrilling stories of surgeries without much doctor jargon. It is a non-fiction book without the "I'm reading this textbook for school" feel.

I give it a 4/5; the only thing that keeps it from getting a 5 is that occasionally, Gawande goes on a bit long, particularly when discussing the role the checklist plays in construction. You should still read it though, if only to read the one thing about Walmart that will make you hate it less.