Sunday, November 25, 2012

Non-Fiction You Can’t Put Down

While searching for non-fiction books to take with me on my recent vacation, I came across a list of "Non-Fiction books You Can’t Put Down" at my local library. Since Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, one of my all-time favorite non-fiction books was at the top of the list I decided the list deserved a second look.  Here are my thoughts on the other selections:

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer :
Krakauer writes an inside account of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster when eight climbers were killed and several others were stranded by a horrific storm.  This book has been on my reading list for several years, but I’ve been waiting for the right moment to read about mountain climbing gone wrong.    Previously, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Krakauer’s book Into the Wild and am sure I will get around to this one eventually.  

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
The library list describes this book as Informative and funny without being disrespectful, the author investigates what happens to bodies after death when donated for medical research transplants and forensic science.  Though the book sounds interesting, I was not in the mood to read about dead bodies at the time.

Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss:
In 1891, 24-year old Marie Sklodowska moved from Warsaw to Paris, where she found work in the laboratory of Pierre Curie, a scientist engaged in research on heat and magnetism.  They fell in love.  Their work was revolutionary and deadly.  Here is the enthralling story of their lives, work, and deaths.  This book sounded intriguing and I've added it to my TBR list.

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
Why did the peoples of certain continents succeed in invading other continents and conquering or displacing their peoples? Why weren’t native Australians, Americans or Africans the ones to colonize Europe? Diamond has written a book exploring his theories in answering these questions.  I’ve read this one.  It was readable, entertaining and thought provoking.  If you haven’t read it and are interested in social issues I recommend reading this one.

In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall
This is the best-selling classic that tells the story of Jane Goodall’s study of chimpanzees in the wild. This sounds like a great read for my BE Strong reading challenge I will be undertaking in 2013. I would like to read a couple of books about strong women and think this one might be a good selection.

                  Truck: A Love Story by Michael Perry
Perry a Wisconsin native returns to his home town of New Auburn Wisconsin and writes a book about the year he spent restoring an old truck and falling in love.  This book is the reason I now take four or five books with me on a vacation. I read it while on a camping trip in western Wisconsin with my husband who spent the trip trying to convince me we should relocate to the area.  I had grown up on a farm in western Wisconsin and had spent the first 18 years of my life plotting how to get as far away from the area as possible.  The last day of our trip it rained, my husband took our vehicle to go fishing and there was nothing for me to do accept sit under a screen tent and try to keep my book as dry as possible while reading.  The more I read, the more annoyed I became about the prospect of moving, camping in the rain and reading this book.  I didn’t finish it and haven’t been able to bring myself to open another book written by Perry since.  This is a perfect example of reading a book at the wrong time.

True Notebooks: A Writer's Year at Juvenile Hall by Mark Salzman:
In 1997 author Mark Salzman paid a reluctant visit to a writing class at LA.’s Central Juvenile Hall a lockup for violent teenage offenders, many of them charged with murder.  What he found so moved and astonished him that he began to teach there regularly.  In voices of indelible emotional presence, the boys write about what let them to crime and about the lives that stretch ahead of them behind bars.  We see them coming to terms with their crime-ridden pasts and searching for a reason to believe in their future selves.  Insightful, comic, honest and tragic.  True Notebooks is an object lesson in the redemptive power of writing.  Wow, I hadn’t heard of this book prior to seeing it on the list.  This one sounds like a must read.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
Shots rang out in Savannah's grandest mansion in the misty, early morning hours of May 2, 1981. Was it murder or self-defense? For nearly a decade, the shooting and its aftermath reverberated throughout this hauntingly beautiful city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares. John Berendt's sharply observed, suspenseful, and witty narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel. I listened to this book on audio several years ago and although I frequently see it listed on lists of nonfiction books that read like fiction I wouldn’t include it on a list of my favorites. I‘ve often wondered if I missed something by listening to the book rather than reading it.  Despite not being overly enamored with the book, I did add visiting Savannah to my bucket list.

The Physics Book: From the Big Bang to Quantum Resurrection, 250 Milestones in the History of Physics by Clifford A. Pickover
A richly illustrated chronology of physics contains 250 short, entertaining and thought provoking entries.  In addition to exploring such engaging topics as dark energy, parallel universes, the Doppler effect, the God particle and Maxwell’s demon, the book’s timeline extends back billions of years to the hypothetical Big Bank and forward trillions of years to a time of quantum resurrection. I am not interested in reading about science, so I will be skipping this one.

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick:
A fresh and extraordinarily vivid account of the voyage of the Mayflower and the settlement of Plymouth Colony.  From the Mayflower’s arduous Atlantic crossing to the eruption of King Phillip’s War between colonists and natives decades later, Philbrick reveals a fifty-five year epic, at once tragic and heroic, that still resonates with us today.  One of my nonfiction reading friends read this book and highly recommended it, so after seeing it on this list I decided to take it with me on vacation.  I didn’t get around to reading it while in California, but did so after returning home finishing it the Friday after Thanksgiving. It was a perfect November read and an eye opener into what really occurred during that period in history.  I was both appalled and disgusted by the brutality the English (especially the religious Pilgrims and puritans) subjected upon the Native Americans. Philbrick pulled the book together for me with this paragraph: 

It is easy to mock past attempts to venerate and sanctify the Pilgrims, especially given what their sons and grandsons did to the Native Americans. And yet, we must look with something more than cynicism at a people who maintained more than half a century of peace with their Native neighbors.  The great mystery of this story is how American emerged from the terrible darkness of King Philip’s War to become the United States. (Pg. 397)
If you don't care to read this book, but would still like to learn more about the real Pilgrims please see Talkin' Turkey: What Travel Taught Us About the First Thanksgiving on the Huffington Post.
Have you read any of the books listed above?  If so, what were your thoughts? Do you have any non-fiction recommendations you think should be added to the list?

Please Note, I am an Amazon Affiliate

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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Good Posture Helps Older Employee Get Hired

I know of a company that recently hired a new manager. This manager  had lost his job after the company he worked for in another state went out of business. He came highly recommended and interviewed extremely well. In addition to being offered a position, he was given a signing bonus and reimbursement for his moving expenses.

Shortly after the employee filled out his new-hire paperwork, the company’s hiring manager told me she had misjudged him. What was the problem - HE WAS 66 YEARS OLD. She had not seen this one coming, during the interview process she had pegged him to be in his mid-50’s. She was sure he took this job only to have her company pay for his moving expenses, so he could retire near his family.*     

This story has two significant points:

Despite anti-discrimination laws hiring managers do “profile” and discriminate when making hiring decisions:
In my post How to Get a Promotion, I wrote the over-40 crowd is hugely discriminated against. Companies want to hire employees who are on the up-swing on the bell curve of their careers rather than on the down-swing. This hiring manager’s comment reveals she clearly profiles her job candidates. I wonder if she had known the real age of this candidate prior to making her offer if she would have considered him for the position. 

Appearance does matter:
I had the pleasure of meeting this employee and I too thought he looked much younger than his true age. He must color his hair. I took a second look, the man was almost entirely bald and the little hair he did have was mostly gray. Then I realized what it was; he was incredibly fit and had a dynamic presence. His posture was perfect. His erect stance took ten years off his appearance.

The Importance of Good Posture:
In Primer magazine’s article The Secret to Having a Commanding Presence Antwan McLean writes:
Whether you’re selling insurance, asking for a discount, or convincing her she wants to give you her number, you must present a confident, convincing posture. 

Keep your feet shoulder width apart in a grounded stance, hold your shoulders back, and keep your back straight. This presents a confidence that leads people to trust you, subconsciously admire you, and begin to agree with whatever it is you have to say. Take notice of how you stand in your next presentation or conversation. Practice the skill of straight posture until it becomes a natural part of your presence.

How can we improve our posture?
In the book Sitting Kills, Moving Heals: How Everyday Movement Will Prevent Pain, Illness, and Early Death - and Exercise Alone Won't author Joan Vernikos recommends:
Begin by placing a small bean bag on your head; next, place a small book on our head while sitting in a straight-backed chair. Working at your computer is a good start. If you slouch or raise your shoulders, the book will fall off. Once you’ve mastered balancing the book while sitting still, carry it on your head as you walk around. You will get better at this with perseverance. You may increase the size and weight of the book, making it a spine-strengthening habit as well. (pg. 66)
* Supposedly this assumption is not true. When confronted about his age this employee stated he planned on working several more years.

Do you know someone who has a dynamic presence? What attributes do you think contribute to their presence? Do you have any techniques for improving posture or for creating a more dynamic presence?

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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Reading 'The House of Mondavi' by Julia Flynn Siler Enhances My California Wine-Country Vacation

I’ve written before about how I try to match my vacation reads to the setting I am visiting. So when a friend recommended I read Julia Flynn Siler’s book The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty for my upcoming trip to California’s wine country, I quickly put this book at the top of my vacation reading list.

Book Synopsis:
A scandal-plagued story of the immigrant family that built—and then lost—a global wine empire Set in California’s lush Napa Valley and spanning four generations of a talented and visionary family, The House of Mondavi is a tale of genius, sibling rivalry, and betrayal. From 1906, when Italian immigrant Cesare Mondavi passed through Ellis Island, to the Robert Mondavi Corp.’s twenty-first-century battle over a billion-dollar fortune, award-winning journalist Julia Flynn Siler brings to life both the place and the people in this riveting family drama. A meticulously reported narrative based on more than five hundred hours of interviews, The House of Mondavi is a modern classic.

Though the Mondavi family business is wine, the focus of this book isn’t wine or wine making, it is the Mondavi family, their family business and the business of wine. Since I work as an accountant for a family-owned business, I found much in this book I could relate to. I especially enjoyed reading about what works and more importantly what doesn’t work in a family-run business. In addition to office politics, family politics are also at play. Here is what Alan Ferguson, Rainier Brewing Company’s chief executive, had to say after meeting with Robert about Rainer’s backing of the Robert Mondavi Winery:
Was sibling rivalry fueling Robert’s drive to build a bigger operation? Or did he simply need a deep-pocketed investor if the winery was to keep its creditors at bay? As the head of a family enterprise himself, Ferguson was no stranger to the emotional undercurrents that influence so many business decisions. (Pg. 88)
This is what Dr. Grundland, a psychiatrist hired to advise the Mondavi family and employees on how to improve their relationships with one another, observed:
What became evident through the sessions was that a destructive triangle had arisen among Robert and his two sons. Just as Rosa had intervened to protect Peter, Robert often stepped in to try to defend Timothy in dealing with his older brother, Michael. Yet at the same time, as long as Michael and Timothy continued to fight with each other, Robert could remain the key decision-maker. It was a pattern that other entrepreneurs also struggled with, consciously or unconsciously, as the time came for them to pass control to the next generation: Were they sabotaging their successors in an effort to hold on to the reins a little longer themselves. (Pg. 196)
I enjoyed all of the business aspects of this book; from Cesar Mondavi’s building of the business, to Rosa Mondavi’s estate planning, Robert Mondavi’s succession planning, the implications of the Robert Mondavi Winery becoming a publicly traded company and the economic impact decisions such as building a Chilean winery, a deal to promote fine wine at Disneyland and Robert Mondavi’s large charitable commitments had on the business.

Reading this book prompted several interesting discussions while on vacation:

With a Sonoma County business owner:
After reading about Robert and Margarit Mondavi’s five million dollar home in Napa Valley I mentioned to a Sonoma business owner that the homes and wineries I had seen in Sonoma County were much smaller than I had anticipated. Upon hearing the Mondavi name this person went into a rant about how Robert Mondavi and his family had ruined Napa, their family feuds were shameful, and their excess spending including their large homes and lavish parties were deplorable. In her opinion, Sonoma County was fortunate Napa’s excesses had stayed in Napa.

With a winery owner’s niece:
When I mentioned my conversation with the Sonoma business owner to a winery owner’s niece, the niece adamantly disagreed. She had met Robert Mondavi at one of his lavish parties when she was a young girl. She remembered him as a kind, funny, little man. She felt he had done more to promote “wine education” than any other winery owner and that the American wine industry would not be what it is today if it hadn’t been for Robert Mondavi. She thinks The Robert Mondavi Winery still provides the best wine education in Napa. See: Robert Mondavi Winery is the place to go for your Napa Valley Wine education

With a former Opus One employee:
At an Alexander Valley Wine tasting, our wine host mentioned he had started his career as a distributor for Opus One. Opus One, the Napa Cabernet blend Robert Mondavi made in partnership with the Rothschild family of Bordeaux, France, my ears perked up. I had to tell him I was reading The House of Mondavi. He then relayed a story about the time he had met Robert Mondavi. It was a hot summer day, he had purchased a sandwich at a gas station and not wanting to eat in his car had moved to a private picnic table on the Mondavi property.  While enjoying his sandwich, he saw Robert and his wife Margarit walking towards him. He was sure he was going to be fired when Robert bellowed out, “What do you think you are doing?” The employee stood up, offered his hand and said, “Mr. Mondavi it is so nice to meet you, you’ve paid my electric bill for the past 20 years.” Robert and Margarit then sat down and the three of them were engaged in conversation for the next two hours.

Conversations about the craft of wine-making:
Even conversations where I didn’t bring up the Mondavi name benefited from having read this book.   I understood the small wine-maker's frustration when he talked of creating premium wines for famous big-name wineries without receiving credit. And the wine-maker whose family winery was purchased by the Silicon Valley millionaire who was more interested in profits than making quality wine.

Bottom Line:
The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty may not be a book for everyone. The boardroom and family back-stabbing along with the corporate takeover may be a bit too boring for some reader’s taste.  This is a book for someone interested in the wine industry or in business, especially family-run businesses. For me, I enjoyed The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty because it was the perfect read to enhance my vacation experience.

If you enjoyed this book you may also like Sweet and Low: A Family Story another book I've read about a family-owned business, although this book is written by Rick Cohen, the disinherited grandson instead of an unbiased author, who at times he is clearly bitter.

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Sunday, November 04, 2012

Deciding to Join "Bleak House" Read-a-Long in the Aftermath of Sandy

This week I was going to post what I learned from my vacation to Northern California, but in the aftermath of storm Sandy writing about a vacation seems inappropriate.

My brother lives in NYC.  Here is a picture he took of the west village from his apartment window immediately after the storm.  If you look closely you can see the dark buildings in the background. How eerie it must have been:

I didn't hear from him again until Tuesday night at 6:00 p.m. when he emailed to say, "Just walked north twenty blocks and charging phone at an ATM. They think the power will take a few days to a week."

On Wednesday he went to Brooklyn and spent the rest of the week with friends.  His power was restored Saturday morning at 4:00 a.m.  It took 12 hours for his apartment to reheat.  The building where he works will be open tomorrow, but will not have heat until Wednesday.   Today he was supposed to have run in the NYC marathon; he is not too upset that the race has been canceled though since he injured his knee a couple of weeks ago.  Instead he is staying inside and is reading Daniel J. Boorstin's book The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination:

According to Wikipedia this book is about the story of mankind's creativity. It highlights great works of art, music and literature but it is more than a recitation or list. It is a book of ideas and the people behind those ideas. It encompasses architecture, music, literature, painting, sculpture, the performing arts, theater, religious expression and philosophy.

He is enjoying the book, but at 832 pages it is a daunting read.

Speaking of daunting reads, I have decided to join a read-a-long of Charles Dickens’ classic novel Bleak House hosted by Jenny (Jenny Love to Read) and Trish (Love, Laughter and a Touch of Insanity). 

I've been meaning to read one of Charles Dickens' books for some time, so when Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness  mentioned she was participating in the read-a-long I decided to join as well.  In the past I've found it easier to read a classic novel as part of a book club or on-line discussion group.  According to the book's jacket the novel is about:
The injustices of the out-of-date English legal system, which bring misery and ruin to the characters involved in settling the distribution of the Jarndyse estate.  The other great theme of the novel is that of hypocritical philanthropists-portrayed here in the character of Mrs. Jellby-who bestow charity on distant lands at the expense of family and neighbours. 
I also spotted Bleak House on Flavorwire's An Essential Stormy Weather Reading List where they wrote:
Bleak House begins with the weather: “Implacable November weather” with a dense fog everywhere. Not only this, but mud and drizzle and flakes of soot “as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.” The weather is meant, at least in part, to evoke the equally dark and oppressive mire of the mid-nineteenth century judicial system — both topics perfect to read about while sitting safe inside by the fire as a wild storm rages outside.
How appropriate.  Also, since injustice is one of my favorite reading topics along with the fact that Bleak House is considered Dickens best work this should be a good read for me.

The only problem is my copy of the book is 880 pages long.  Talk about daunting.  It is a good thing the read-a-long doesn't end until December 31st.

What is the most daunting book you have ever read?  Have you read any of Charles Dickens' works?  If you've read the  Bleak House what were your thoughts?

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