In The Plex

In the Plex
By Steven Levy
3/7 stars

I expected In the Plex to be an objective history of Google and its various endeavors. As it turns out, I was only half right. It is, indeed, a history of Google.

This is not to say that Levy did a poor job researching the book. As far as I can tell he did a fairly in depth job. But when you describe saying to a developer, “I’d rather be doused with gasoline and set on fire than use your product” as “tough love” (171), I’m going to say you are a teensy-weensy biased.

Not only was this work less critical than I would expect of a journalist, I found that there were many times Levy seemed to actively avoid looking at things objectively. At the risk of crit-fic, I’ll say that Levy is fairly obviously enamored of his subject. He almost never said anything negative about the founders. Only positive things were allowed, apparently.

To that effect, he spends a disproportionate amount of time on Google’s successes and barely mentions its failures. I have no problem with the author examining Google’s success. But seriously, not everything it touches turns to gold. Looking at what didn’t work and why really would have been helpful. But no. No, that would make sense. Instead, let’s just gloss over all that.

The writing itself was fine but repetitive. I lost track of the number of times I read “they quickly set up a war room”. I get it. War rooms happen. On the plus side, Kilroy was mentioned, so that happened.

If given the choice between this book and being stranded on a desert island, I’d pick the book. But I wouldn’t take it to the desert island.

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What the Dog Saw

What the Dog Saw
By Malcom Gladwell
7/7 stars

The best part about Malcolm Gladwell is the fact that he thinks up questions no one else does. Questions like: why is there only one kind of ketchup when there are dozens of kinds of mustard? What is the difference between a puzzle and a mystery? What if Enron’s trouble wasn’t a lack of disclosure so much as too much information? What actually goes into profiling a criminal? All these questions are examined, if not necessarily answered, in What the Dog Saw.

This volume is a collection of essays Gladwell wrote for The New Yorker over the years. As such, there is only a loose cohesion between the chapters. The main problem with this is Gladwell could not go as deep into any given subject as I would have liked. He clearly goes to the trouble of researching his subjects very thoroughly, and it would have been cool to read more of his findings.

In publishing a collection of shorter works, Gladwell highlights his writing capabilities. I love Gladwell’s turn of phrase. He has a prodigious vocabulary and makes excellent use of it. In reading his work, it feels like his entire goal is to get you to question the things around you. Often in these essays, he doesn’t give you a solution or answer to the problems that he poses. I find that highly useful, as it encourages me to think more for myself.

I would recommend anyone read this book. It’s fun, entertaining and thought provoking.

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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People
By Stephen R. Covey
6/7 stars

7 Habits is one of those books that now has its own mythology. Even if you’ve never read it, you have probably heard (or made fun of) “synergizing”, “sharpening your saw”, and “thinking win-win”. It’s become so much a part of the culture that there are parodies of it everywhere. If you’ve never read it, you may think you already know what’s in the book. If so, you, like me, are most likely wrong.

Covey starts out by saying that self-help, communication, and managerial advice is of little use. The reason is that they deal with superficial and outward behaviors without examining your underlying character, motives, and values. First one must focus on these factors before even considering their relation to other people.

With that in mind, the first three habits fall under the heading of “Private Victory”. Habit 1 is to be proactive. Recognize that you are responsible for your response to any given stimulus in your life and adjust those responses to fall in line with your principles. Additionally, learn to discern what you can actually change or influence and focus on that rather than what you can’t. This is good advice, but it doesn’t take in to account things like trauma, abuse, and circumstances beyond your control. Proactivity is certainly good, don’t get me wrong. It does have to be developed of time, though.

The second habit is to begin with the end in mind. This means to consider how you want your legacy to last beyond you. Consider your underlying principles and how those affect your daily life and views. Then take those principles and values to create a personal mission statement for yourself. This can help you focus your attention on the things that you truly value as well as help you recognize places that you want to improve upon.

The final habit on private improvement is to put first things first. Prioritization and time management both get addressed in this section. The idea is to focus your time on things that are important, but not urgent. Urgency can’t always be ignored, but more often than not it results in a lot of busy work that doesn’t really accomplish anything. Instead, one should focus on that which will minimize urgent things in the future by doing that which is important now.

Now Covey moves into the section he calls a “Public Victory”. This is in regard to your relations to other people, allowing the habits you’ve instilled in your inner life to have an impact on your day-to-day life. Habit 4 is to think win-win. In other words, shift your personal view of interactions to where your main goal is for everyone to benefit. This doesn’t have to mean that everyone gets everything they want. It does mean that your goal is focused on the people around you as well as yourself. The relationships you have with other people are more important than the problem or conflict you are presented with.

Paired with Habit 4 is Habit 5: seek first to understand, then to be understood. Truly empathetic listening is very, very hard. This is a habit I’ve tried to instill in my life for many years, and it is highly frustrating to me. I want people to get to whatever point they want to convey quickly. But if you are seeking to understand someone else’s perspective without probing or projecting, it takes what feels like forever. However, empathetic listening is one of the best ways to deeply connect with another human being. It takes patience, but it is certainly worth it in the long run.

Now, synergize! Seriously, that’s Habit 6. When you have achieved high levels of both trust and communication, your interactions can become synergistic, meaning that the whole is greater than the sums of its parts. The problem with this section that I found was while there were a number of examples given of synergy, there was little in the way of practical advice to achieving it.

Finally, the last habit is to commit to personal renewal on a daily basis. This includes physical, mental, spiritual and social areas of life. The idea is to maintain a mentality and practice of continual improvement. You are never complete as a person and should therefore never stop working on yourself as a person.

I would highly recommend this book. It has solid advice and is useful to people in nearly any stage of life.

 

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Not Everyone Gets a Trophy

Not Everyone Gets A Trophy
By Bruce Tulgan
3/7 stars

I found this book rather frustrating to read. It did have some good advice, but that advice was scattered in the midst of generalizations, condescension, and factually inaccurate statements. The premise of the book is that the members of Gen Y are fundamentally different than those in preceding generations and therefore require a different managing style.

This managing style consists of assume they need you to take the role of pseudo-parent and teach them all the things. All the things includes: scheduling, note-taking, checklists, and how to finish a task. Gen Yers need you to hold their hand, provide structure in their lives, and give constant feedback. Keep track of every single miniscule accomplishment so that you can praise them for it and give out copious rewards. The title of the book is “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy”, but you could easily put in parenthesis “But Treat Them Like They Do”.

As you can probably tell, I was not a fan of this book. The main reason for this was less the content and more the tone of condescension the author advocates when dealing with younger people. While he constantly says to respect them, he also advocates near constant supervision for the members of Gen Y, which to me is a mixed message.

However, there was some good advice in the book. What I found the most applicable was have flexibility in scheduling, create open dialogue, legitimately seek input, respect your employees, and communicate both positive and negative things without varnish.

All in all, I would probably not recommend this book unless you have a hard time relating to people of a different generation to yourself.

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The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars
by John Green
5/7 stars

I wasn’t really aware of the book The Fault In Our Stars until the movie came out. I didn’t see the film, as I try to read the book first whenever possible. I heard people raving about how good it was and that I just had to read it to be complete as a person. I finally got around to it yesterday and I certainly enjoyed it. This was a pleasant surprise as I generally find young adult fiction sorely lacking.

Whenever I pick up a YA book for the first time, I get a little nervous. It’s not that young adult fiction is bad, per se, it’s more that it has a bias that way. It has a built in audience, which means that inferior books which would not survive normally have a decent chance of not only being read, but being popular. This is unfortunate as it undermines young adult fiction as a genre in the minds of many serious readers. I will openly acknowledge that the majority of YA should be considered in the “inferior book” category, but that does not mean I can discount books simply because they are young adult fiction. Every book should stand on its own. I will argue that The Fault In Our Stars does so.

One of the most valuable things about fiction is its ability to instill empathy in the reader. When you read, you put yourself into the perspective of another (usually the protagonist) and learn to see through their eyes. I think this is especially important in young adult fiction. The target audience is still learning the life skill of empathizing and reading can help strengthen it. This, to me, was the most impressive part about this book. Hazel felt like a real person that I could talk to and identify with. Sure, I don’t have her problems and she’s a very different person than I am. But when she hurt, I felt it. When she laughed, I smiled. It is very rare that I feel as much for a character as I did for Hazel and for that, John Green deserves kudos.

Hazel and Augustus have two main things in common: cancer and pretentiousness. Hazel has terminal cancer, Augustus has lost a leg to his disease. As teenagers, neither of their lives are exactly easy. How do they deal with it? By expressing themselves grandiloquently, using big words and generally being snarky. In truth, this penchant to employ sesquipedalian words is something I have done since high school and it resonated with me. I felt not only that these kids were smart, they desperately wanted acknowledgement from others that they were so. Sarcasm is used both as a plea and armor.

Because Hazel is terminal, she lives with a fundamental lack of hope. She is living on borrowed time, and she has no idea how much longer she might have. This is a terrifyingly heavy burden for a sixteen-year-old to carry. Nonetheless, Augustus helps find joy in day to day living and she helps him in return. What I found so poignant was how hard Hazel tries to not hurt anyone and how useless she finds that effort to be. Living involves being with other people: affecting them and being affected. You can’t help but hurt people along the way no matter how hard you try. Hazel works toward understanding this throughout the book.

For all its good points, The Fault in Our Stars is not perfect. Most of the problems are plot related. While the characters are good, I found myself predicting nearly every turn in the plot up until the end. I will say I didn’t correctly call the end, but I was close. A simplistic plot isn’t the worst thing that could happen to a book, but it does prevent this one from being great fiction. It is great YA fiction, but not great fiction.

If you like YA, most definitely read this. If you don’t, you might give it a try anyway. I think it is worth your time.

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Like Water for Chocolate

Like Water for Chocolate
by Laura Esquivel
7/7 stars

I loved this book so much. Once I picked it up I could not put it down. Thank God it was short; I would have gotten nothing done last weekend.

What caught me first was the prose itself. The writing style is somewhere between Paul Bunyan and One Hundred Years of Solitude. It feels like a tall tale and is told like a family legend. It’s poetic and grand, and makes you feel like you are inside a story.

Set somewhere in Mexico, Like Water for Chocolate recounts the story of Tita De La Garza and her twin loves: food and Pedro. Food was her first love. The book itself is written in part like a cookbook with a loving description of a recipe at the beginning of each chapter. I love food, and this was a brilliant way to draw me in. Not only the ingredients, but the sight, smell, and texture of the dishes were all laid out on the page. Each recipe was used to introduce the subject of that particular chapter and somehow tied in with the action of the plot. I’ve never really seen this done before, and I thought it was brilliant.

The second love of Tita’s is the man in her life, Pedro. Or rather, not in her life. It becomes clear in the very early pages of the book that this is not a story of star-crossed lovers destined to be together, but rather lovers doomed to stay separated for all time. There is no in between in the land of legends. While they do truly love each other, circumstance and relatives conspire to keep them from ever getting married as they so desperately want. It’s a tragic story full of loss and woe. Very melodramatic.

I would 100% recommend this book, especially if you have a flair for the dramatic. If you hate hyperbole, however, this book may not be for you.

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Any Human Heart

Any Human Heart
by William Boyd
6/7 stars

Any Human Heart was very interesting. I often have a very hard time enjoying a book when I dislike the protagonist. When I met Logan Mountstuart, he was not a very likable person. He was pompous, vain, rude, lazy, and insubordinate. Basically, he was most teenagers I’ve known. At first I kept reading for a) the beautiful prose and b) the side characters.

As I continued, though, I started to have an appreciation for Logan. He did not become a lovable character but he did become an interesting one. He remains selfish, vain, and rude, but becomes a surprisingly hard working writer and art critic. He is charming in his own way, which allows him to be in a number of relationships to a greater or lesser degree of success. He remains very self-satisfied, but little happens to challenge that assumption so I can nearly forgive him that. All in all, Logan’s character is very easy to penetrate at first but becomes more complex as the story evolves. Since this book is written as though it were a series or personal journals, this is a smart move. It helps Logan develop as a character as he grows up.

Any Human Heart could easily be seen as a case study in the selfishness of the human condition. Logan truly does not think about other people or how his actions will affect their lives. It’s not that he doesn’t think they are people; he’s not a sociopath. It just truly doesn’t occur to him that consequences are a thing. When they do happen, he seems shocked or surprised, and blames others for the discomfort he finds himself in. In many ways, Logan lives his entire life as a child: continually wanting his needs met without having to truly work for it.

And with all this, he is not the worst character in this book by a long shot. Logan lies and cheats when it’s convenient. One or two of his colleagues do so apparently out of principle. Negative principles, sure, but still the mandates by which they live. Look out for number one is a key philosophy, but so is the inevitable conclusion that it won’t make one happy.

As Logan’s life continues he loses some of the hubris that he started with. By the end of the book, I truly wished him well (though I still wouldn’t want to be friends with him). His life took so many random twists and turns it was quite ridiculous. He was friends with Hemingway, became a spy, reported on the Spanish Civil War, managed an art gallery, and lived all over the globe. In short, it felt like an actual autobiography rather than a work of fiction. It’s too absurd to be made up.

I would definitely suggest this book with a couple of caveats. There is a fair amount of alcoholism, adultery, cursing and general awful behavior in this book. If you are sensitive to this, I would steer clear. On the other hand, it is wonderfully written and surprisingly thoughtful; well worth the read for those who put the time in.

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