Posts Tagged ‘book review’

Touched with Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

I recently finished reading Touched with Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison whose subtitle, “Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament” is an apt description.

She devotes nearly a hundred pages to genealogies and histories of famous artists she believes were manic depressive. Although some of them were interesting, the general concept didn’t interest me as much as it apparently interested her. The highlight of the book is a story from the life of Lord Byron (page 168-169):

In fall 1807, having been told that regulations would not allow him to keep his dog at Cambridge, he acquired a tame bear – there being no rule forbidding bears – and housed it in the turret of his college rooms. His pleasure in the bear, which he walked through the streets of Cambridge, was obvious: “I have got a new friend, the finest in the world, a tame bear, when I brought him here, they asked me what I meant to do with him, and my reply was ‘he should sit in for a fellowship….’ This answer delighted them not.”

What I really wished, was that before either book was written, the authors of this book and Seized (Eve LaPlante) had sat down together and had a long chat. Seized describes Gershwind Syndrome and a potential relationship between Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and manic depression. Each author diagnoses Vincent Van Gogh with the disease they write about. Both books were released in 1993, so neither was available for the other to consult, but as a person who had read both, I would have loved to hear the authors discuss how Manic Depression, Epilepsy and creativity might be related.

Dance of the Gods by Norma Beishir

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

I’m something of a connoisseur of bad romance novels: the worse the better. I started out with the incest-liciousness of V.C. Andrews and eventually moved on to Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance books (and movies!), all interspersed by the occasional isolated book.

During my recent bout of computer trouble, I did a lot of reading. Dance of the Gods by Norma Beishir (not to be confused with a book by the same name authored by Nora Roberts) has made my mental hall of fame as being one of the rare books that’s so bad, it’s bad. There was not enough silly to redeem it.

Pages 1 through 4 set up a mystery, pages 5 through about 450 give us the back story, and the last 40ish pages resolve the mystery. I solved the mystery in the first tenth of the book. I kept reading because of the possibility that I was way off base. I wasn’t. I suspended judgment until about page 350 when it suddenly dawned on me: I was reading a terrible book.

There was one passage that really got my attention. In a romance novel, it’s often a given that the happy couple wants dozens and dozens of children together. As stated on page 392 of this book, “The ultimate expression of a woman’s love is having her lover’s baby.” Women who are infertile, don’t want children or are lesbians obviously don’t love their partners. Our hero mentions a few times his desire for children (which is a discussion I wish they’d started before the wedding, but since everyone in romance novels wants children, why would they bother?). This is one such conversation (page 392):

His hand lingered on her stomach. “I for one would like a large family.”
“You just want to see me get fat,” she said, keeping her voice playful.
“Not fat, ripe.”

At first I was so disgusted that I missed his whole point: cannibalism! He wants a large family for the same reason he wants a well-stocked refrigerator. Of course, his wife is the one getting ripe, so maybe he’s going for some kind of human turducken. If only there were a way for their baby to get pregnant in utero.

Review: Four Hour Work Week

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

I viewed Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss with skepticism I normally reserve for late night infomercials. I read it in spite of that because the library had a copy, so it cost me nothing to satisfy my curiosity. My usual book-review note is in effect.

The crux of the book is advises the reader to create a product that can be shipped straight from the factory to your buyer without any action on your part, so all you have to do is sit back and watch the money appear in your bank account.

I’m not convinced of the book’s thesis: that anyone who wants to can make a huge stack of cash doing very little work. Its methods for dealing with employers seemed rather optimistic, and I think the author overestimates the amount of time one can save by cutting the non-work activities out of your workday. Admittedly, the author’s done it, I haven’t, so that make him the expert, but I’m not convinced that because he was able to do it, anyone can.

Additionally, much of the plan hinges on concepts advertising and outsourcing. As I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t like advertising and I don’t have a great solution to or substitute for it. I don’t know how you’d get people to learn about, much less buy, your miracle product without some form of advertising. I don’t have an educated opinion on outsourcing, but I’ve heard enough controversy surrounding it that I would need to educate myself on the topic before being personally involved. Although the author does spend a couple cursory pages saying basically, “Outsourcing is fine, don’t worry so much”, it didn’t really address any issues about why outsourcing might not be fine, just that everyone does it. Which is fair: it’s not a book about social justice in the global economy.

The plan is a guide, not a recipe that must be followed under pain of death. If you don’t like an idea presented in the book, you don’t have to act on it. The book as a whole is still useful for the other strategies he provides for reducing the amount of time you need to spend at work. Each chapter ends with a list of relevant resources, mostly on the Internet.

Many sections end with a series of questions to the reader: what would you do with your days if money were no object? He spends some time expounding on the idea that a person’s quality of life is directly proportional to the number of uncomfortable conversations they’re willing to have, and encouraging readers to swallow those proverbial frogs. This is book’s most powerful aspect: putting the proverbial frogs in perspective by juxtaposing them with of the promise of readers’ wildest dreams.

It was timely reading material for me, being between jobs, because I’m not entirely convinced I want a new job exactly like my old job so I can do exact same thing for the next forty years, and this book did help me get a fresh look at my options. I enjoyed it, and were I not also between incomes, I might even buy a copy. In the initial draft of this review, I said I would hypothetically recommend it to a friend, but in the month that’s elapsed I’ve already recommended it to two. I don’t know if they’ll find it useful or educational, but I do anticipate they’ll find it thought provoking

Confessions of an Advertising Man

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

This morning I finished reading Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy.

Early in the book, after discussing his strategy of being a publicity hound, he writes (page 32):

Gentle reader, if you are shocked by these confessions of self-advertisement, I can only plead that if I had behaved in a more professional way, it would have taken me twenty years to arrive. I had neither the time nor the money to wait. I was poor, unknown, and in a hurry.

I found this interesting because none of his “confessions” even raised an eyebrow, which is probably a testament to how influential this book was. While it was apparently shocking to buddy up with people who are influential in your industry for the sake of getting attention, it’s now called networking and people in most professions are urged to do it.

While my feelings on advertising are known, he strikes me as a decent guy.

  • He entreats advertisers to address the consumer with respect. On page 65 he writes, “The consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife.”
  • “The product must be one which we would be proud to advertise.” He writes on page 46; he reiterates a similar principle on page 65, “I also resign accounts when I lose confidence in the product. It is fragrantly dishonest for an advertising agent to urge consumers to buy a product which he would not allow his own wife to buy.”
  • He uses the words “intellectual honesty” many times, both when referring to an advertiser’s dealings with their client, and that client’s potential customers

In short, he wants to tell consumers why his client’s product is the best product on the market, as opposed to just make a stack of cash on a pack of lies. I found this a little surprising. It had never occurred to me that honesty might be part of an advertisement.

I giggled along with the following passage from page 127:

As a private person, I have a passion for landscape, and I have never seen one which was improved by a billboard. Where every prospect pleases, man is at his vilest when he erects a billboard. When I retire from Madison Avenue, I am going to start a secret society of masked vigilantes who will travel about the world on silent motor bicycles, chopping down posters at the dark of the moon. How many juries will convict us when we are caught in these acts of beneficent citizenship?

I wonder how he rectifies such powerful distaste with the fact that he/his agency must surely create the occasional billboard. I wonder how he would have felt about the proliferation of advertising into more and more places. He may say so in his later books, but not having read them I am free to wonder. I wonder if, besides billboards, any other new places to advertise would have struck him as an intrusion. I suspect that, as a businessman, he would understand that finding new and novel places to advertise was a necessity of continuing to create effective advertisements, even if he hated it to the point of destruction, he would still do it, as he did with billboards.

It seems that he opposed gimmicky advertising, but only because it was ineffective. On page 151, in his final chapter, titled “Should Advertising be Abolished?”, he writes:

My own clinical experience would suggest that the kind of informative factual advertising which dons the endorse is more effective, in terms of sales results, than the “combative” or “persuasive” advertising which they condemn. Commercial self-interest and academic virtue march together.
    If all advertisers would give up flatulent puffery, and turn to the kind of factual, informative advertising which I have produced…they would not only increase their sales, but they would also place themselves on the side of the angels. The more informative your advertising, the more persuasive it will be.

This book paints a much more innocent picture of advertising than the one I hold. I don’t know if that’s because I’m especially cynical, or if the advertising industry itself has changed in this respect. I tend to believe the latter, but surely there are still some advertisers who are sincerely believe their client’s product is best just as surely as some of Ogilvy’s contemporaries’ advertisements were based on lies.

A word on book reviews

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

I’m drafting some book reviews, and I wanted to make some comments here so I don’t have to repeat them in every single review:

The vast majority of books I read I have mixed views on. A book I liked all the way through would probably be useless to me as it wouldn’t give me anything to think about.

As I write reviews, I try to consider, however unlikely, the possibility that the author will read this review. I would do a disservice to all involved if I failed to discuss the things I disliked about a book because those are also usually the things I find most interesting. It is not my intention to hurt anyone’s feelings. I hope it will always be obvious that any criticisms I may have of the book, and potentially the author, are not taken as a form of disrespect.

Also, not that I expect there will be any doubt given how vocal I’ve been on the subject of advertising, but for the record, none of these posts are sponsored or otherwise requested by the publisher or anyone else; I do not receive any form of compensation. The vast majority of books reviewed are checked out from the library after I read about them on the internet.

If any excerpts contain typos or other errors, please assume those are transcription errors on my part, not reflective of the author or editor.

Review: Micro Eco Farming

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

I recently checked out Micro Eco-Farming by Barbara Berst Adams from the library. Although I liked it overall, the following review is not going to give that impression. There were a few passages that really got under my skin and I’m going to spend the majority of this post making fun of them. I want to make it clear, before I focus exclusively on the mockably negative, that it had quite a bit of interesting things to say and I’m glad I read it.

I think I was looking for this book to be a little how-to book, but it did show how little land you need to constitute an mirco eco farm (most farms it profiled were about a half acre) and give general strategies for how a tiny little farm can compete against much larger farms (greater flexibility).

Unfortunately, the number of dubious claims made it a less-than attractive starting point for further research. The most comical appears on page 75:

Dr. Norm Shealy, M.D., a world-famous neurosurgeon who gave up that practice for holistic medicine, states that every known illness is associated with a magnesium deficiency. And magnesium, like all the others, works in conjunction and must have its counterparts beyond its commonly known calcium relationship. When plants then get their supply of magnesium and pass it on to animal and humans in a form we can digest and assimilate, health can be restored.

It’s possible illness has a more specific meaning than the one I have in mind, which I as a layperson consider an umbrella term for any disease, syndrome, infection or other ailment. That possibility not withstanding, I find it very hard to believe that human health is so simple that all ailments stem from the lack of one nutrient. Especially when one can fatally overdose on it – an ailment I can be reasonably certain isn’t caused by magnesium deficiency.

Earlier in the book, page 62, it actually managed to made me angry:

Revenue comes for farms and riches that find humans healing from their interaction with tamed horses, llamas, bunnies, and other creatures. “Our ranch is really profitable,” said a manager of a children’s horse farm, “Parents tell me they’re glad to support our farm instead of spending money on drug and alcohol rehabilitation for their kids.”

I found the ignorance regarding substance abuse and its treatment amazing and offensive until I realized: why should they pay for rehab when parents can just give their addicted kids magnesium supplements and health can be restored? I’m going to stop by an oncology ward and spread the good news. Then I’ll stop by a hospice with my newly cancer-free friends and we’ll cure those people with magnesium. Then we’ll form a gang and take over the world by controlling the planet’s magnesium supply.

The only way the above passage makes any sense at is by assuming author and farm owner and parents mean that by exposing their children to the natural world, the children will develop a sense of belonging in the natural universe such that they won’t develop substance abuse problems, and the parents won’t have to shell out for rehab later. Unfortunately this passage doesn’t give any indication that it ought to be interpreted that way.

On page 135, the author writes:

It’s been said that the greatest scientist of all is the earth.

This answers some questions. Apparently our author doesn’t know what a scientist is. The earth, being a lovely planet but not a conscious being, is unable to formulate a hypothesis, one of the primary steps in the scientific method.

As I said earlier, it was overall an interesting book, and it’s certainly not my intention to hurt the author’s feelings by only selecting passages that contrasted sharply with my world view. I appreciate that she and the people she interviewed took the time to share their lives and experiences with the world at large.