Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Wake Up or Die by Corinne Sandler

Wake Up or Die is a 138-page commercial for Corrine Sandler’s business, Fresh Intelligence Research Corp. There’s nothing wrong with that when the book offers readers fresh, valuable information. Unfortunately,  I don’t think she did her firm any favors by publishing this.
Her message is that businesses need intelligence. Managers need to understand their customers, competitors, markets, and much more. This is Business 101, and Wake Up or Die never goes beyond this basic truism. Rather, Sandler uses Sun Tzu’s 2,500-year-old treatise The Art of War as a skeleton on which to hang her pronouncements.
A problem: The function of war is to destroy the enemy, his army and his means of continuing to make war. The function of business is to obtain and retain customers (thank you Peter Drucker), not to destroy competitors. No customers—no business and no need for intelligence. Therefore, trying to make Sun Tzu’s thirteen chapters fit neatly into her argument is often a stretch. For example, Sun Tzu points out a general needs spies. Sandler points out a manager needs competitive intelligence—true—but there’s a huge difference between planting a spy in the enemy camp and regularly checking a competitor’s web site, quarterly reports, and other publicly available data.
Another problem: Probably because her firm has non-disclosure agreements with her clients (loose lips sink ships after all), Sandler cannot use the firm’s work to illustrate her points. She is stuck using old (Ford’s first assembly line) or well-known (Kodak’s bankruptcy) examples. Because she’s using secondary sources (which she does not cite), she cannot show exactly how intelligence—or the lack of it—played a role in the case. Kodak invented digital photography but allowed other companies to exploit it. Why? What intelligence did Apple have that made its leaders think the iPhone was a good idea? Sandler doesn’t—almost certainly can’t—tell us.
Aside from the biz-speak writing and clumsy writing (“…throwing money at the media is now a double-edged sword…”), it is hard to see the audience for whom Wake Up or Die is written. Sandler’s examples are virtually all large consumer products companies thereby ignoring business-to-business cases. She seems to be exhorting senior executives, but because she offers almost no practical, actionable suggestions on how they can turn data into intelligence, it is difficult to see what CEOs would do with her ideas that they’re not already doing. If I were Sander’s public relations counsel, I would recommend she not distribute the book.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Japantown by Barry Lancet

San Francisco art dealer Jim Brodie is fluent in Japanese because he grew up in Japan as his father was establishing a private security business. The father, now dead, left his half of the business to Jim, who over the years improved his fighting, shooting, and detecting skills. The most precious thing in Brodie's life is his six-year-old daughter, Jennie.

On page 1, a SFPD Lieutenant calls Brodie to Japantown to consult on a murder. Five tourists from Tokyo, three adults and two children, have been slaughtered on the street. No witnesses, no clues except a piece of paper with a Japanese character written on it—the same character that had been painted on the Los Angeles sidewalk in front of the house in which Brodie's Japanese wife, uncle, and aunt had died in a fire three years earlier. Coincidence? I don't think so.

Japantown is a superior thriller, not a mystery. While Brodie narrates the bulk of the story, author Barry Lancet switches to third person POV at the end of Chapter 2 to show us a mysterious character scanning the Japantown murder scene with night vision goggles. This character, representing something called Soga, recognizes that Brodie is not a cop, that he's wearing a Japanese ball cap ("Bad news"), and that with a photograph of the license on Brodie's Cutlass and a phone call he'd have the owner's name, address, and other information within thirty minutes. Brodie doesn't know what he's stepped in but we readers have intimations.

I don't want to say much more. This is Lancet's first thriller, and you can learn more about him, the book, and Japan on his website. Lancet's visit to Japan turned into "a position at one of the country's top publishing houses, and in twenty-five years he developed numerous books across many fields but mostly on Japanese culture—including art, crafts, cuisine, history, fiction, Zen gardens, martial arts, Asian philosophy, and more. All of which were sold in the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world. The work opened doors to many traditional worlds, lending a unique insider's view to his own writing."

Perhaps as a result, Japantown does not read like a first effort. The Soga organization that Brodie and his associates in the Tokyo detective agency have to combat, while extraordinary is not entirely preposterous. Lancet, after all, has the example of Aum Shinrikyo as a secretive, vicious group. Because Lancet knows Japan—the language, the culture, the custom—so well and is able to weave that factual, authoritative information into the narrative, we are willing (I am willing) to suspend disbelief and accept the novel's more improbable incidents and revelations. If you want a thrilling ride on a fast machine, Japantown is your vehicle.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Whispers of Vivaldi by Beverle Graves Myers

Whispers of Vivaldi is Beverle Graves Myers’ fourth Tito Amato mystery (and the first I’ve read). She set herself an interesting challenge: to write convincingly from the point of view of an 18th century Italian castrato. A castrato, of course, is “a male singer castrated in boyhood so as to retain a soprano or alto voice.” In earlier books, Tito has apparently been a star of Italian opera but is now no longer able to sing.  (One of the many things Myers does well is weave in enough of Tito’s history from, I assume, the earlier books without disrupting the flow of this one. You don’t have to read the first three Tito Amato mysteries to enjoy Whispers of Vivaldi.)
It is 1745, Venice in the last years of La Serenissima, a city mad about opera, and Tito is the assistant director of Teatro San Marco, the Senate-sponsored opera house. Unfortunately, the San Marco has been losing subscribers to Teatro Grimani, “a house known for mounting lightweight operas filled with pretty tunes and even prettier prima donnas.” Tito convinces his friend and mentor and the San Marco’s director they should mount something new and different, The False Duke, a score by an young violinist who teaches the young woman at the same “foundling” hospital at which Vivaldi had taught twenty years earlier.
To mount the opera, of course, Tito has to obtain permission from the Savio alla Cultura, “the patrician official charged with collecting a portion of the theater’s revenue for the Republic’s coffers.” And to ensure success, Tito, his English brother-in-law, and his manservant, travel to Milan to engage a young castrato who sings so beautifully, gossips in Venice claim he’s actually a girl.
So we have a fascinating narrator in Tito. A convincing picture of Venice in the mid-1700s with theater rivals willing to sabotage a production, competing castrati, a powerful and intelligent police chief (“Messer Grande” who is mentioned in the memoirs of Casanova), masked balls, faro tables, Carnavale, and, of course, murder.
You don’t have to have been to Venice or to love opera (or Vivaldi) to enjoy Whispers of Vivaldi. But if you have been to or do love opera (and don’t want to plow through the six volumes of Casanova’s History of My Life) this is a skillful, engaging, convincing story from the time.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Nothing Remains the Same by Wendy Lesser

Wendy Lesser, the founding editor of The Threepenny Review, had the good idea of rereading certain books she'd read as a student to see how her perceptions of them had changed. She studied literature as an undergraduate at Harvard and as a graduate student at Cambridge and the University of California, Berkeley. She's published ten books, most recently Why I Read: The Serious Pleasures of Books (2014). Nothing Remains the Same (2002) was her sixth book and she was in her late 40s when she wrote it.

I mention her age because it is significant. Lesser compares quite candidly her youthful reactions, thoughts, impressions of books to her thoughts now twenty or thirty years later. She impressed me because she could remember the books she discusses so vividly. I am not sure I could say anything about any book I read in my teens and twenties.

(Not entirely true. Not long ago in a used book store I found a novel by Philip Wylie, Opus 21, which had so dazzled me as a 17-year-old I wrote Wylie a fan letter. I could not recall any details of the story, and when I reread it I could not imagine what on earth I'd thought was so wonderful. Perhaps the apparently glamorous life of a freelance magazine writer, but on rereading it I found it totally preposterous and mystified by my 17-year-old self.)

I was also impressed by the works Lesser discussed. To name only those I have never read (and thereby expose myself as a literary ignoramus): Portrait of a Lady, Don Quixote, Alexander Pope's "Epistle IV: To Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington," The Education of Henry Adams, Anna Karenina, The Idiot, the short stories of D.H. Lawrence, The Winter's Tale, Paradise Lost, Huckleberry Finn, A Hazard of New Fortunes. What makes Lesser's "blend of autobiography, literary analysis, and self-analysis" (Oliver Sacks quote) so delightful is that you do not have to have read the books to understand and enjoy her comments. 

Nothing Remains the Same makes me want to finally read some of these classics, to read more of Wendy Lesser's works, and to reread some of the books that I can recall.