Category Archives: nonfiction

Delivering Happiness (Tony Hsieh) 3*

delivering happinessThis is not a book to read at face value.  If you enjoy the twists and shadows of autobiographies, Tony Hsieh (CEO of Zappos) writes in a very engaging manner, and there’s definitely some interesting stuff going on beneath his blithe chatter.

By the third chapter, I was trying to figure out why Tony’s narrative voice sounded so familiar.  Then I got it: Hsieh sounds exactly like Richard Feynman in What Do You Care What Other People Think?  Fun, direct, energetic, and unabashedly (even charmingly) egotistical.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first part, where Hsieh talks about his youthful ventures.  A born hustler, he was always in the pursuit of more pocket money.  I especially liked the story of the garage sale where his friend dressed younger than her real age and sold lemonade.  Of course they made 5 times more on the lemonade than the garage sale.

Tony spins a rapscallion version of his youth, giving the impression that his parents were very concerned about grades but that young Tony was not, and then somehow he magically/effortlessly got into Harvard and Brown.  He chose Harvard “to please his parents” and continued to do business-y things like manage the snack bar of his dorm.

The story doesn’t get out-and-out weird until we get to Zappos.  He goes on and on (and on) about how culture was the most important thing about Zappos.  They didn’t care if they were selling shoes or plane tickets, it was all about culture culture culture and WOWing the customers and coworkers.  He and his execs get so circle-jerky that when they discover over drinks that Zappos culture means different things to each of the execs, they ask every single Zappos employee to write a one-page entry in a Culture Book about “what Zappos culture means to me.”

They love the culture book so much that they decide to do it anew every single year.  Gentle reader, are your eyebrows still in their at-rest configuration?

A little while later, Tony and the top execs decide that San Francisco isn’t a long-term home for Zappos because Bay area types don’t want to work in call centers as a career, so they make arrangements to move the entire company to Las Vegas.  They announce it to their employees after the decision has been fully made, and Tony spins it as some kind of victory that “in the end, 70% of our people decided that it was worth it to uproot their lives, sell their homes, have their spouses find new jobs, pull their kids out of school…in order to work for our awesome company because we are the bestest evar!!!”  [Editor’s note: This is not a real quote, but it might as well be.]

I really wonder what entries were censored from the Culture Book that year.


Imagined London (Anna Quindlen) 1*

imagined londonThis book, it had so much potential.  The first pages warble lyrically about how many times Anna Quindlen has visited London in her imagination, which made me go, “Yes!  Me TOO!!!”

This is a book that needs to exist!  Which is why Quindlen’s half-assed execution makes me kind of crazy. I mean, how could anyone write Imagined London in 2004 and neglect Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross, which actually fucking exists now?  I’m not even a Potterhead, but if a person is going to entitle a book Imagined London, maybe such person should be interested in how real London spills into imagined London, and then imagined London spills right back into real London, which is what makes London fabulous.

My dear Watson, The Case of the Missing Platform illustrates two pernicious problems:

1. Quindlen didn’t visit the real London until she was a successful journalist in her 40’s.  Her first (and only?) visit was for a book tour of her own book.   Quindlen is cute when she gets excited, but she comes off like a Dickens fangirl with a free tourist map.

2. Maybe Quindlen hasn’t heard of Harry Potter?  Because all she chatters about is Dickens, Thackeray, the Bloomsbury group…  The book is peppered with insecure bragging as Quindlen namedrops the big books she voluntarily read at a young age.   How about a little 1984 action and a bit of V for Vendetta?   There is SO MUCH STUFF MISSING IT MAKES ME CAPSY!!!  Platform 9 3/4!  Wooster and Jeeves!  Neverwhere!!!

Then Anna does stuff like wander into Covent Garden on accident, fail to recognize it, and then fail to note that the unrecognizability of Covent Garden is a really fucking interesting piece of urban sociology.  Like Times Square, Covent Garden used to be a STD vortex.  My Fair Lady depicts the “flower seller” selling actual flowers, but don’t tell me you don’t know what ladyflower Eliza Dolittle was selling.  Today’s Covent Garden, in an astounding feat of urban renewal, is made of tourists and plastic.  See also: Globe Theatre and the South Bank.

If I led a literary tour of London, I’d point out the tiny little garden by the Temple tube stop, which is where Twelfth Night premiered.  In this garden, actors in Shakespeare’s histories would have plucked a red rose of Lancaster from a living rose bush.  We’d stop for lunch at The Moon Under Water, one of the chain of pubs named after George Orwell’s fictitious perfect pub.  I’d gesture at a Hotblack Desiato real estate placard and invoke The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  I’d point out a faded sign for a bomb shelter and remind everyone that this is why Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter were shipped out to the Professor’s house in the country.

Then I’d take the group to Westminster Cathedral for evensong; even for unbelievers, a house where worship has been offered every day for a thousand years has a certain power.  Feel free to think about the boys singing in The Dark Is Rising, though that scene actually takes place in a country church.  After having a bit of a sit-down at evensong, we’d go be groundlings at the Globe, hooray!

Lastly, I’d take them to the strip mall at Angel tube stop, nip into the Sainsbury’s there for an assortment of chocolate and biscuits, and hand everyone a complimentary copy of Neverwhere  at the end of the tour.  To this day, I crack up just thinking about Islington.*  Plus, Neverwhere features my favorite bridge (Blackfriars) and all my favorite place names (let’s hear it for Elephant & Castle!**).

In conclusion, don’t read Imagined London.  Just read Neverwhere (my review here).  What post-Dickens stories would you highlight if you were putting together a tour?

* Tangent: Islington’s local animal welfare group is SNIP: Society for Neutering Islington’s Pussies.

** A pretty cool neighborhood: very untouristed, has many brown people, and the absolutely badass Imperial War Museum is around the corner.  Be sure to check out the John Singer Sargent painting of mustard gas.

Rework (Jason Fried & David Hansson) 5*

A splash-in-the-face primer on how to start (or run) a business.

As the witches might say, Fried and Hansson have First Sight.  They look around and say sensible things like:

  • if you bring in investors, you will lose control of your company
  • build the smallest product that can be sold, then leverage up to meet your master plan
  • meetings are mostly useless
  • having people in different time zones lets you work uninterrupted for most of the day
  • your estimates suck so don’t plan around them
  • press releases are spam — pitch to individual journalists
  • stop putting ASAP at the end of everything, wanker [wanker added for emphasis]

I think my favorite is “your customers are probably wrong,” where they quote Henry Ford saying, “If I’d listened to my customers, I’d have given them a faster horse.”

A very quick read, and worth re-reading from time to time.

Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air (David MacKay) 4*

Tasty crunchy numbers!  The Economist describes this book as “geek heaven“; the author says he’s just trying to cut UK’s emissions of twaddle.  David MacKay, a Cambridge physicist, wades into the data with a calculator and a touch of snark.

“Every big helps,” he says, and he takes the reader on a fact-based hunt to find the places where “big” can be implemented.  He takes all energy and converts it to kWhs so that we can compare cars and pets and trans-Atlantic flights and milk.  For the record, a cat consumes 2 kWh/day, each newspaper takes 2 kWh to produce and deliver, a 30-mile car ride averages 40 kWh, and an intercontinental flight averages 30 kWh/day for an entire year.

So my last flight to the US was the equivalent of driving 40 miles every day for a year (or keeping 15 cats).  Cold hard math says that not even my meat-avoiding, car-free lifestyle really redeems my jet-fueled vacations.  Damn.  And my philosophical aversion to hairdryers (0.06 kWh per use, based on my own calculations) isn’t worth a damn either.

You can fork over $35 for the paperback, or you can download the whole PDF for free from Prof. MacKay’s website.  Data-hungry readers of my nerdly blog, this book was written just for you.

Take a browse and tell me: Does the book work for you?  Which figures are most surprising?  Will you be doing anything differently now?

Figure 11.1 from the book.

The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science (Natalie Angier) 1*

This ain’t no whirligig tour.  This is a no-end-in-sight slog for people who don’t know the difference between solids and gases.  


This book  might be the thing.  It has 42 chapters.


James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (Julie Phillips) 5*

Author crush!  I’ve read one Tiptree novel and one Tiptree short story, and halfway through the biography I’m totally in love.  I haven’t even gotten to the point where Tiptree writes anything. This is the first biography I’ve read in years, and the most stunning that I’ve read ever. Everybody, everybody, everybody agrees.

I’d heard there was something about the CIA and chicken farming, so I was surprised to learn that Alice’s life starts in Chicago high society.  Her parents were wealthy, and her mother was Famous.  When Alice was 6, her parents took her on a 1000-mile walking trek through the Congo in order to shoot and stuff silverback gorillas for the museum of natural history.

The newspapers proclaimed little blonde Alice to be the first white child to ever step foot in Africa.  The whole thing is insane — 200 porters, encounters with cannibals, a pre-war Congo with high-elevation lakes resembling Switzerland, walking 1000 miles and then changing into dress whites to have dinner with the Belgian governor… Alice’s family would make three such African tours, and during the last one they decided, “Oh what the hell, let’s go back the other way around via India and China.” The family found India and China rather dull in comparison.

Biographies often spend a lot of time on the parents, which I usually skip/skim, but not this time.  Mary Bradley was a very popular author and speaker, and also a dead shot with an elephant gun.  On one of the hunts, Mary shot a young male lion and the creature, merely stunned, roared back to life as she was posing with its head on her lap.  Mary leaped up and shot it through the heart.  Back in America, however, Mary was all white dresses and perfect hair, always the life of every party.  She was “so unimpeachably feminine she could be herself.”  She was loving and charming and publicly joyous and every damn visitor to the house told Alice, “If you grow up half as _____ as your mother, you’ll have done well, young lady!”

Alice grew from a shy girl-child raised among the glitterati to a lost teenager at Swiss boarding school to a rebellious genius at college.  She grew up beautiful, inflamed with unconsummated crushes on lost girls (wistfully sketched later in Tiptree’s Dead Birds, one of the reasons everyone was so sure Tip was a man).  I could put together the best gender studies class ever out of Alice’s life and work.  Hell, I could structure a history/literature/art/geography/politics/everything class out of this one book.  Alice’s headmistress once reassured her parents about their genius daughter: “very often the most disorderly girls become the most punctilious housewives.”

She eloped with a boy five days after she met him at her debutante ball.  They “got on like Kilkenny cats, with magnificent reconciliations, until I came to.  Anyone who shoots a real gun at you when drunk and angry is simply not husband material, regardless of his taste in literature.”

Alice declared theirs an open marriage and did some drugs and brothels, “perhaps three I recall.  One I went to play whore, another to play man, I mean I dressed as a boy and went with some men and had to pay for having bitten a woman’s breast.  Most confusing.”  While they were married, her husband novelized their marriage as Dawn Breaks the Heart, which would obviously have to be part of the course syllabus.

Divorced at 27, Alice sobered up and enlisted for WWII.  This is where I am now: one-third of the way into the book and science fiction has crossed young Alice’s field of vision exactly once.

at 6:

at 16:

at 29:

Everybody, run out and read it so you can tell me: for you, what is the most astonishing thing about this book?  For me, it’s the sheer beauty of the letters that Alice writes.

Desert Solitaire (Edward Abbey) 4*

Seen through 21st century eyes, this book is clearly a blog.  Abbey spins yarns about his colorful day-to-day, plus his friends who come to visit, his trips on his days off (such as whitewatering down the first leg of the Powell Expedition with a one-legged friend), and random rants about cars, the Park Service, people in wheelchairs, and women (roughly in that order).

I’d give it 5 stars if it stayed as strong as it starts.  The beginning makes me drool a little: Edward Abbey shows up for a year of park rangering at Arches National Park and lives alone in the glorious desert.  He removes a dead rat from the toilet of his little trailer and remarks that a gas cookstove and an indoor toilet are pleasingly luxurious.  His mother raised 5 children without either.  Soon he’s telling rattlesnakes to get the fuck off his property and taking a wild gopher snake home as a pet to keep rattlesnakes away.  Before you know it he’s moonlighting as a cowboy, vandalizing trees, pulling a friend out of quicksand, and retrieving dead hikers from the canyonlands.

I like Abbey because he’s infected with crazed desert-love.  He’s an old-school naturalist, meaning he’s a botanist and biologist and geologist and poet and philosopher and damned reckless in the field.  Abbey can literally look out his back door and give the common and Latin names of every plant in sight, along with detailed descriptions of plant lore, quoting appropriate classic poetry all the while.  Where did this guy go to school?  My favorite chapter is “Cliffrose and Bayonets,” where Abbey declares, “Time to inspect the garden.”   Abbey sees every speck of life, and there’s a freakin’ lot of it even in the hoodoo land of redrock sandstone.  I have to agree — I’ve seen more life in the Sonoran desert than anywhere outside of a zoo.  There’s enough there to support mountain lions (which several of my friends sighted, but neither Abbey nor I ever did).

The weirdest thing about Abbey’s blog is that his sandstone desert is full of invisible water.  He wanders around on foot or horseback with one canteen of water, and somehow he always finds a tiny seep before his meager daily ration runs out.  I have never, ever in my whole life found water in the desert, but maybe I just don’t know how to look.