Tuesday, December 3, 2013

BuzzFeed bans negative book reviews

Tom Wolfe (The Right Stuff, The Bonfire of the Vanities) once wrote that the best way to raise one's reputation is to tear down someone else's. I thought about Wolfe's remark the other day when I read that BuzzFeed has changed its policy on book reviews. Seems the popular social sharing site will no longer publish negative book reviews, a decision that has generated controversy, including an op-ed piece in the New York Times.

Is there a place for negative books reviews? Should books and authors be publicly reviled because a reviewer doesn't feel a work is up to scratch? Those are loaded questions. If a book contains a litany of factual errors, or if the writing is egregiously bad, then a reviewer has a duty in telling it like it is. Criticism - good or bad - doesn't need to be sugar coated, but it also shouldn't contain malicious personal attacks.

On Inferior Planet, I purposely avoid writing negative reviews. To indulge in such an exercise is petty, juvenile and unfair. If there are aspects of a book that are irritating or deserving of valid criticism, I'll say so. If I can't find finish a book or can't find enough qualities to justify a fair review, then I won't review it. Period.

A case in point: There is a best-selling author whom I'd never read before and whose novels are universally praised. His work has been translated into dozens of languages and adapted for the movies. This author is frequently interviewed on radio: he is smart, eloquent, thoughtful and engaging. The longer I avoided reading him, the more of a literary ignoramus I felt.

About two months ago, I finally bought one of his novels and began to read it.

After 300 or so pages, I gave up. The characters were bland. There were too many random, unexplained events, and the narrative thread was weak. It was a struggle to finish each chapter. The writing was good, even brilliant in spots, but a novel needs more than good writing to sustain it over several hundred pages.

When I encounter a book that I can't appreciate, I'm not going to slam the book or the author. That's not my style. I'll find another book - there are far too many great ones deserving of my attention to worry about the books that don't measure up.

Writers spend an inordinate amount of time alone with their thoughts and ideas; the effort required to produce a work of fiction or non-fiction is intense. Such intellectual rigor deserves a steady and unbiased eye, and reviewers have an obligation to weigh the good with the bad.

Plus, I believe that a fate worse than being trashed is to be ignored, especially in this digital and mobile age when relevancy and attention are the new currency.

I applaud BuzzFeed's decision to ban negative book reviews. I believe that reviewers can provide honest criticism without resorting to personal attacks and trying to destroy a writer's reputation. Besides, trash talk often speaks more to the attacker than it does about the intended victim, and readers are far better served without it.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

McEwan captures the abundant joy, beauty and drama of a single day

Saturday, a novel by Ian McEwan
Published in Canada by Alfred A. Knopf Canada (2005)

Saturday tells the story of a day in the life of Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon who lives and works in London, England. In the opening scene, Henry is standing at his bedroom window at night when he observes an airliner off in the distance, apparently on fire as it flashes across the sky and disappears from view.

The dramatic action in the skies above London foreshadows the drama about to unfold in Henry's life. On this particular Saturday, Henry is looking forward to a day off work: playing squash, shopping for seafood, and a planned family reunion. But an uncharacteristic lapse in judgement while driving his Mercedes-Benz will have unsettling consequences for Henry and his family; and suddenly a carefully calibrated life is tipped off balance.

Henry - a happily married father of two grown children - is a man who is normally in control. Up to this point in his life, there has been a clean, orderliness to his existence. He has been a master of his own fate (in his career and his personal life) through dedication, perseverance, hard work and luck. As McEwan explains, Henry is "too experienced to be touched by the varieties of distress he encounters - his obligation is to be useful."

In McEwan's hands, the plot progresses quick enough to keep readers engaged, but it almost pales in comparison to the surgical precision of his prose. McEwan packs an extraordinary range of detail into his scenes and takes readers on an extensive journey inside the mind and world of Henry Perowne over a 24-hour period, describing his thoughts, fears, biases, aspirations and beliefs. Indeed, McEwan dissects Henry's waking moments as would a surgeon operating on a patient, with unflappable confidence, dexterity and skill.

McEwan suggests that the true miracle of life resides in brief snippets of everyday experience, not in grand events or political movements (the backdrop of Saturday is the lead up to Britain's involvement in the invasion of Iraq). The moments that define us are brief, accidental and fleeting - and suffused with beauty and meaning.

The pacing of Saturday is slow and deliberate; with each new plot development, McEwan steps back and dissects various undercurrents of thought and actions before proceeding to the next turn of events. For me, that's what makes McEwan's writing so brilliant and memorable: this ability to stop the action in mid-stream and examine its parts from different vantage points using language that sings and alights on the page, without losing the narrative thread. At one point, McEwan spends several pages describing a game of squash between Henry and his colleague, and by the end of it, the reader is caught up in the competitive drama between the two men and Henry's fierce desire to win.

In another scene,  Henry is listening to his son performing at a music rehearsal, and recognizing how music has the capacity to touch the soul: 
"There are rare moments when musicians together touch something sweeter than they've ever found before in rehearsals or performance, beyond the merely collaborative or technically proficient, when their expression becomes as easy and graceful as friendship or love. This is when they give us a glimpse of what we might be, of our best selves, and of an impossible world in which you give everything you have to others, but lose nothing of yourself."
It is these kinds of meticulous descriptions that characterize McEwan's writing. He creates a vivid fictional world that is realistic on the outside and fantastically complex on the inside. Saturday is a novel that exemplifies why Ian McEwan is considered one of the finest - if not the finest - living novelist working in the English language. 

For those you have never read a McEwan novel, Saturday is a perfect place to jump in.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Treliving's straight-talking memoir contains lessons for life and business

Decisions, Making the Right Ones, Righting the Wrong Ones, 
by Jim Treliving 
Published by Collins, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. (2013)

Jim Treliving is one of the participants on the CBC's top-rated TV show, Dragons' Den. He has been a regular on the show since it first aired in 2006.

I've been a fan of Dragons' Den since the beginning. I enjoy the spontaneous interactions between self-made millionaires and entrepreneurs who are looking for investment dollars - especially the lightning-fast vetting and evaluations that occur after a presentation had been made. It's reality TV at its best.

In 2012, Treliving published his memoir, entitled Decisions, Making the Right Ones, Righting the Wrong Ones, which documents a life spent mostly as an entrepreneur, following an eight-year stint with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. This a straight-talking, no-nonsense book filled with valuable life lessons, entertaining anecdotes and business advice from someone who has built one of the most recognizable restaurant franchises in Canada (Boston Pizza). There is a certain cavalier tone to the book in keeping with Treliving's real-life, on-air personality, but it is also painfully honest and transparent when it needs to be. It's a lively memoir filled with energizing tales and homespun philosophy that held my attention from start to finish.

Treliving started working for the RCMP in 1960. In 1968, feeling unfulfilled in his career in law enforcement, Treliving left the RCMP and purchased a Boston Pizza franchise in Penticton, British Columbia. Prior to the career change, he had spent time hanging around the original Boston Pizza restaurant in Edmonton and he liked the people, the atmosphere and the social aspect of operating a busy restaurant. As Treliving explains it,
If I had left the decision to my head, it would have told me I was crazy to leave steady, pensioned pay for something so irregular and unsteady. But money wasn't the draw. The work, the culture, the possibilities were. For me, the restaurant had all the qualities I loved about police work: camaraderie, spontaneity and even shift work and odd hours. In my heart, I knew I was leaving one calling for another.
In Decisions, Treliving is quite open about his failures, struggles and successes in trying to grow the fledgling Boston Pizza franchise. There were missteps, including ill-timed forays into the Chinese and Ontario markets, both of which served as valuable learning experiences. Watching Treliving play the role of a venture capitalist on TV, it's hard to imagine that early on in his business career, he faced serious financial challenges and made mistakes that could have cost him everything. But Treliving was a fast learner: he surrounded himself with good people and seized opportunities when they came along (Treliving's decision to sign Boston Pizza as a vendor at the 1986 Vancouver Expo was a marketing coup that gave the franchise world-wide recognition). Of course, being a visionary with a strong work ethic and sizable ambitions didn't hurt, either.

As Treliving explains, many good decisions that he has made in business were based on old-fashioned instincts, which have always guided him. As he admits early in Decisions, "I make decisions about work with my heart, about money with my head, and about people with my gut." That advice has served him well over the past four and half decades in the business world.

For anyone starting out as an entrepreneur or looking for inspiration from someone who knows what it takes to build a dynamic and successful company from the ground up, Decisions is an entertaining and substantial read, and I would recommend it.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Sedaris delights with early collection of short essays

Me Talk Pretty One Day, essays by David Sedaris
Little Brown and Company (2000)

Although I've read several of his essays in The New Yorker, this collection, Me Talk Pretty One Day, is my first introduction to a complete book of essays by David Sedaris.

In this collection, Sedaris discusses a range of topics, from his early years spent growing up in North Carolina and his years attending art college in Chicago to his time in New York and his eventual move to Normandy, France. His reflections on being a transplanted American living in France comprise about half of the book's content and are downright hilarious.

Sedaris is a master at taking otherwise mundane, everyday situations and interpreting them with his own style of humor and pathos. Two of my favourite stories include a short piece about crossword puzzles, and a piece about his younger sister, Amy. In reading some of these essays, I was reminded of Woody Allen and his many insecurities, foibles and neuroses. Like Allen, Sedaris views life with unblinking honesty and a wilful naiveté, and seems not quite at home in the modern world.

These essays are thoughtful, sad, funny, and highly entertaining. Sedaris is at his best when he describes his own family and his interactions with parents and siblings. He's also hilarious at poking fun at himself and his perceived shortcomings, as evidenced in this passage where he tries to understand the inner workings of a television and an air conditioner:
 "To this day, I prefer to believe that inside every television there lives a community of versatile, thumb-size actors trained to portray everything from a thoughtful newscaster to the wife of a millionaire stranded on a desert island. Fickle gnomes control the weather, and an air conditioner is powered by a team of squirrels, their cheeks packed with ice cubes. 
These slice-of-life stories are quick and easy to digest. I found myself laughing aloud several times at some witty comment or keen observation about the people and situations Sedaris describes.

It takes a special talent to craft mediocre situations into art that has universal appeal, and Sedaris has that talent in spades.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The road to fabulous riches, according to Felix Dennis

How To Get Rich, One of the World's Greatest Entrepreneurs Shares His Secrets

by Felix Dennis
Published by Portfolio, Penguin Group, 2008

If you are an entrepreneur or a business person of any stripe, you could do worse than to take advice from U.K. publishing mogul, Felix Dennis.

In his book, “How To Get Rich," Dennis dispenses a great deal of advice that should be required reading for anyone who either wants to get rich or to improve his/her fortunes as an entrepreneur. One assumes that he knows something about this subject, having amassed a personal fortune worth, by his estimate, between $400 and $900 million U.S.

How did he do it? The old-fashioned, hardscrabble way: with blood, sweat and tears. As a scruffy youth in London, England, Dennis started publishing a hippy magazine in 1967. He made quick and easy money with that venture, which led to a mail order business, and a publishing juggernaut that has continued rolling along for the past 40 years. His stable of 50-plus publications include: Maxim, Mental FlossStuff, Computer Shopper and The Week.

In “How To Get Rich,” Dennis outlines the many skills required to making boatloads of money. He constantly challenges readers to examine their true motivations, the sacrifices that need to be made and the huge risks that need to be taken. He pulls no punches: He writes: “If you truly believe that your race, sex or upbringing can keep you from becoming rich, then you had best give up here…you will never get rich.”

Dennis proceeds to poke holes in much of the conventional wisdom about getting rich and pooh-poohs the slew of books on the subject penned by authors who have never made millions themselves. He is equally dismissive of self-improvement books, which are filled with false promises and empty platitudes.

He has some refreshing insight to share with readers about the importance of listening. “Listening is the most powerful weapon after self-belief and persistence you can bring into play as an entrepreneur,” he writes.

“How To Get Rich” is chock full of wit, humour, anecdotes, advice, opinions and honesty. Here, you’ll learn all about the right decisions Dennis has made in his career, as well as his admitted missteps. At one point in the late 1980s, he came close to losing his fortune (and his life) by over-indulging in booze, drugs and debauchery. But he caught himself in time and now leads a more balanced life.

The tone of the book is informal and assured; but beneath the strong opinions and bravado is the heart of a beast that has fought and clawed its way to the highest echelons of wealth and power.

One of my favourite quotes has to do with seizing the moment. Dennis writes: “Whatever your inclinations, your aptitude, your abilities or your preferences, never shrink when opportunities arrive. If you have weighed the odds and find yourself convinced, ignore the protestations of sensible people and their conventional caution.”

“How To Get Rich” is a practical business book about what it takes to acquire tremendous wealth. For those who are committed to applying the techniques that Dennis lays out, and learning from his mistakes, this could very well be a life-changing book.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Mark Burnett's larger-than-life experiences will inspire

Jump In! Even If You Don't Know How To Swim
By Mark Burnett, published by Ballantine Books (2005)

Mark Burnett is a famous television producer who is credited with introducing the reality TV genre to audiences around the world. His shows – Eco-Challenge, Survivor, The Apprentice, Shark Tank – have revolutionized the medium.

In his 2005 autobiography, Jump In!, Burnett chronicles his rise from obscurity to the top of the entertainment industry with honesty and candor.

This rags-to-riches story is inspiring. After arriving in Los Angeles in 1982 with $600 in his pocket, Burnett soon found employment as a nanny for a wealthy couple. He sold T-shirts on Venice Beach, founded a marketing company and eventually got involved in producing the Eco-Challenge series for Discovery Channel.

Clearly, Burnett has a passion for the outdoors and for embracing the unknown. His personal philosophy of jumping headlong into a project, despite his naiveté or lack of experience, didn’t deter him from tackling bigger and bigger challenges. With a sheer determination, chutzpah, courage and creativity, Burnett embarked on a journey to produce exhilarating TV according to his unique vision.

His story is most compelling when he describes the various trails and tribulations in filming Eco-Challenge and Survivor episodes. His descriptions of exotic lands, from the primitive cultures of Borneo to the snake-infested jungles of the Amazon, make for some fun reading.

Burnett recounts his many adventures in a plain, engaging style presents nuggets of wisdom and lessons learned in adages, which appear as sidebars throughout the book.

Here’s a sample:

  • Choose your companion before you choose your road;
  • Always be brave enough to change your mind when you know you should;
  • Jumping in is all about having conscious faith in your own abilities;
  • Little victories: When setting long-term goals, benchmark your progress. 
Disclosure: I’m not a big TV watcher. I’ve seen one episode of Survivor 1 and half of an Apprentice episode (I can’t remember which season). That’s not to say that the programming that Burnett has produced has not had tremendous value for the shows’ legions of fans and advertisers over the past 14 years.

Jump In! provides a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a modern-day TV pioneer, along with enough thrills and chills to qualify as a page-turner.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

How the Midwest was won

The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson
Published in Canada by Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited (2006)

Best-selling author Bill Bryson grew up in Des Moines, Iowa during the 1950s and '60s, and in his playful memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, he recreates his childhood and teen years with humour and pathos, and sometimes a touch of nostalgia.

With tongue firmly in cheek, and a near encyclopedic knowledge of arcane comic book titles, TV shows and Hollywood stars of the era, Bryson describes the head-scratching fashions, politics, fears, customs and preoccupations of the Midwest following the Second World War. This was a time when detonating hydrogen bombs was a spectator sport and the fear of Communism pervaded every nook and cranny of American life. To be fair, it was also the era of pea shooters, hula hoops, Howdy Doody, Bing Crosby, the New York Yankees and drive-in restaurants.

In all seriousness, this is a fun read, particularly if you grew up in the years Bryson chronicles and can relate to the fads and fashions of the time. I was born eight years after Bryson, but many of the cultural references and world events are somewhat familiar to me. To give an example of Bryson's exquisite eye for detail and his talent for highlighting absurd fashion trends of the day, here he describes a haircut that suddenly became vogue in the '50s:
"...In 1955, my father and brother went to the barbershop and came back with every hair on their heads standing at attention and sheared off in a perfect horizontal plane in the arresting style known as a flattop. They spent most of the rest of the decade looking as if they were prepared in emergencies to provide landing spots for some very small experimental aircraft, or perhaps special delivery messages sent by miniature missile. Never have people looked so ridiculous and happy at the same time."
There are countless anecdotes like that, each more hilarious than the next. One word of caution before reading The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid: This is a laugh-out-loud book that really demands to be read in private. To read it in a public space would be to invite scrutiny and concern from passersby. You could very well find yourself laughing aloud so often that strangers could be forgiven for suspecting that you were certifiably insane.

If you're looking for a book that provides a glimpse of the formative years of one our best contemporary writers, and a history lesson on a generation which seems to have been stuck in neutral and heavily influenced from visitations from other planets, then find this book and read it today -- preferably in private.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Joyland is part coming of age tale, part crime novel

Joyland, a novel by Stephen King, published by Titan Books, A Division of Titan Publishing Group Ltd. (2013)

Stephen King has always been a fan of pulp crime novels, and in his latest novel, Joyland, he pays homage to that venerable genre in an earnest and respectful way. King's decision to only publish a paperback edition, along with the kitschy design on the cover, are throwbacks to the pulp novels from the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

Joyland is a story narrated by Devin Jones, who reflects back on a summer he spent working at an amusement park in North Carolina in 1973. The younger Devin is at first captivated by the people, the ambience and the spirit that pervades the park, a world that operates far outside the sphere of ordinary American life.

While working at Joyland, Devin is drawn to a brutal murder that occurred there four years earlier, a murder that has remained a mystery ever since. Devin is compelled to try and solve the case using a combination of hard evidence and supernatural clues. He enlists the help of a former colleague at the park to help with the research, and when the pair start to uncover some uncomfortable truths, tensions start to build.

Devin is no gumshoe, yet his willingness to poke around and ask questions, combined with his likeable personality and curiosity, make for a heartwarming tale, which works as both a coming of age story and a whodunnit. In addition to investigating a murder, Devin realizes with the benefit of hindsight that working at Joyland represented a turning point in his life, a period of spiritual and emotional awakening. I particularly liked the friendship he forms with a young boy named Mike Ross who has muscular dystrophy. Such a relationship would seem unlikely in a crime novel, but in King's hands, it works.

This not a gripping page turner by any means; the plot hops along leisurely and conversations drag on for longer than they sometimes need to. King's writing style is familiar and folksy. He does a convincing job conveying the language and mannerisms of the "carnys," he builds suspense slowly and methodically, and he's is always in control of his subject.

Joyland is light, breezy reading, perfect for a summer holiday. If you're looking for vintage Stephen King horror, this isn't it. Rather, Joyland is a delightful story with elements of the old-style pulp fiction and a hint of the supernatural, but generously infused with King's characteristic style and wit, a story that delivers quite a punch at the end.

It's great to see King venture into pulp fiction territory, and I hope he has more of this type of fiction up his sleeve.  

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ted Rogers: media and communications pioneer

Relentless, The True Story of the Man Behind Rogers Communications 
With Robert Brehl
Published by HarperCollins Canada Ltd. (2008)

Just before he passed away in 2008 at the age of 75, Ted Rogers released his autobiography, entitled Relentless, The True Story of the Man Behind Rogers Communications.

There is much to admire about this man who almost single-handedly changed the communications landscape in Canada. Aside from being a proud Canadian his entire life, Rogers was a driven man, someone who spent most of adult years chasing after a dream to reclaim his father’s legacy after his untimely death at age 38.

Throughout his life, Rogers viewed himself an outsider, a loner, always bucking against the establishment. But – as far as I could tell – he led a fairly comfortable lifestyle, attending private schools and getting a first-class education. He always seemed to be well-connected with Toronto bankers, and with the business and political elites of the day. The “outsider” label seems a bit of a stretch.

Nonetheless, his early forays into radio (with the purchase of CHFI in Toronto, Canada’s first FM radio station) and his partnership with John Bassett (owner of CFTO TV and the former Toronto Telegram) were among the early successes in his career. Rogers, himself, was not a technical genius, but he seemed to know before anybody else what consumers wanted, and he knew how to sell his vision.

In Relentless, Rogers comes across as a little too reckless at times, always willing to bet the farm on the next big technology. He was lucky to have dodged bankruptcy several times. His excessive debt loads could have sent men and women of lesser mettle scurrying for Chapter 11 protection.

One of Rogers’ many talents was his ability to envision the future. In the 1960s, he got involved in cable TV and seemed to know instinctively that cable represented the future of TV. He also invested heavily in wireless technology, first in cell phones and later in Internet connectivity. For many industry observers at the time, these bets seemed preposterous and irresponsible, but Rogers had enough belief in his convictions and he kept his eye on the horizon.

Relentless is a book that was assembled in a hurry. Rogers must have been aware that his health was failing, when he embarked on this project; there is a sense of urgency in getting his story down on paper in his own words, even if it wasn’t a complete self-portrait.

I made note of a few good quotes in Relentless:

  • “You have to have an accounting of how you’re doing to be able to make clear decisions on where you want to go.”
  • “Just because something is done one way doesn't mean it can’t be improved upon or done in a different way.” 
  • “I learned early that failure is a necessary component of success and an entrepreneur cannot let setbacks sideline him or her from objectives.”
  • “Solid and thorough preparation can trump just about anything.”
  • “Always aim high and look for vulnerability in the market leader.”
  • “Don’t follow a dream; live it.”

Relentless not only gives us Ted Rogers’ take on an illustrious career in the communications industry, it also provides a good overview of the cable and wireless industries in Canada, as they have evolved over the past five decades.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Celestial Navigation examines lives of quiet desperation

Celestial Navigation, a novel by Anne Tyler
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (1974)

The protagonist of Anne Tyler's Celestial Navigation is Jeremy Pauling, a reclusive and misunderstood artist who rarely ventures outside of his studio. With a less talented writer, Jeremy's character might have remained a cliché, a starving artist who sacrifices friends and family for the higher calling of his art. But Tyler brings a level of nuance and understanding to this flawed individual and presents him as a multi-dimensional human being.

Admittedly, Jeremy is not a likeable character (he's selfish, indulgent, cowardly, uncharitable), but in this novel he becomes fully realized. That's what makes Tyler such a compelling writer: she makes even dull and ordinary characters half interesting, if not intriguing. Readers may be not impressed with Jeremy and the life he's chosen for himself, but one must admire Tyler's ability to bring all aspects of his character to life.

As Celestial Navigation opens, Jeremy's mother has passed away, and when his two sisters appear on the scene they discover that their brother is holed up inside the family home. He has taken no responsibility for his mother's burial (a mother who doted on him her entire life), nor has he made an effort to pay his final respects at the funeral home. My first impression is that Jeremy either suffers from a mental illness or has been involved in a debilitating accident.

As the story progresses, however, the real story about Jeremy unfolds through his interactions with several other characters (and respective points of view), including his sisters and his boarders -- in particular a boarder named Mary who will eventually become Jeremy's love interest. One of the pleasures of an Anne Tyler novel is not so much the intricacies of plot and fireworks, but the richness of detail and subtly that she works into her narrative, like a brilliant painter introducing shades of colour and light that have never been imagined before.

The characters in Celestial Navigation (as in other Tyler novels) are unremarkable. They aren't cheerleaders or football stars. They lead lives of quiet desperation and live in the shadows. But these lives, as desperate as they, are not without purpose or nobility. With a continuous layering upon of details, and an ability to enter the minds of her characters and to reveal their innermost thoughts, Tyler portrays them with an astonishing degree of clarity and accuracy.

After reading Celestial Navigation, my opinion of Jeremy Pauling didn't change much, but I did walk away with a deeper appreciation for what makes him tick. He is an artist who spends the majority of his life working inside a studio and has barely any involvement with the outside world. To be sure, he marches to the beat of a different drummer and seems entirely okay with that. In this novel, Tyler pretty much nails him, for better or worse.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Drudge Manifesto depicts turning point in the evolution of news gathering

Drudge Manifesto by Matt Drudge
Published by New American Library (2000)

Matt Drudge is the reporter widely credited with breaking the Monika Lewinsky / Bill Clinton scandal and other high-profile political stories on his now famous website, The Drudge Report.

Drudge Manifesto is part a re-issuing of some of Drudge’s popular posts, part reflection on his first seven years as a reporter and part rebuke against the established media players of the day, who were suspicious of Drudge and the power he yielded with his keyboard and his connections.

His web site has become a leading source of breaking news and gossip, much to the resentment of large media companies with their teams of reporters and high overheads, and much to the chagrin of celebrities and politicians who often find themselves in Drudge’s crosshairs.

To his credit, Drudge makes some sharp observations about the role of the journalist in the Internet age, and how a single individual, working alone in an apartment, with nothing but a computer, an Internet connection and some well-place sources within Washington, can outfox the mightiest news organizations on the planet.

Here is Drudge addressing a question at the National Press Club in 1998.

Q. Do you think journalists should have any minimum educational requirements?
Drudge: “I guess I'm going to the wrong libraries, because I can't find any lawsuit – civil lawsuit approved by the president of the United States against a reporter. I can’t find it. I’d like to have that information for my litigation – put it in the court papers [Drudge is the only reporter ever to be sued by the White House]. Again, I don’t maintain that I am licensed or have credentials. I created my own. I don’t know what the problem is with that. It seems to me the more freedoms we have the better off we are. And you know, I don’t have a problem with chaos and new invention and confusion. I'm sure in the early days of electricity it was absolutely chaotic. The early days of cars, the horse farmers probably said, ‘What are those things?’ It’s not where I come from. I'm much more optimistic – knowing liberty and freedom is the right way to go, knowing a new invention is afoot that is going to realize things beyond anything we dreamed of. I'm not that scared of it.”

For anyone interested in the evolution of news gathering in the Internet age, Drudge Manifesto will not disappoint.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Orwell's searing indictment on how power corrupts

Nineteen Eighty-Four, By George Orwell
Originally published by Harcourt Inc. (1949)

George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is a disturbing novel on many levels and has rightly earned its place among the literary masterpieces of the 20th century.

It's disturbing because of the nightmare world that Orwell creates, full of random violence, soul-sapping monotony and almost devoid of human qualities such as love, ambition, artistic expression, joy and hope. Orwell's language is shocking and provocative, and it's meant to get under the skin of his readers, and it succeeds.

Nineteen Eighty-Four tells the story of Winston Smith, a mid-level bureaucrat who works for the Ministry of Truth. Smith's possesses a rational mind and is all too aware of the dreary, suffocating environment that he inhabits day after day: everywhere he goes and everything he does is closely monitored by Big Brother, or the State. He is encouraged to obey the party line and work without complaint alongside all of the other cogs in the machinery.

Except that Smith has grown tired and restless with this hum drum existence. In an effort to exercise a measure of free will, he thumbs his nose at Big Brother, first by having an affair with a younger woman (Julie), and then by befriending a man (O'Brien) whom Smith believes is part of a movement intent on subverting Big Brother. Both of these decisions will come back to haunt poor Smith, but you'll have to read the novel to find out how.

What Big Brother wants from its citizens is not their physical labours and brainpower (although those are important). Rather, it wants their unconditional love. Whoever dares to challenge Big Brother's power and authority is swiftly and severely dealt with. Anyone who demonstrates an ounce of humanity, decency or free will is either tortured and or killed. There are no courts, no appeals. Big Brother doesn't just kill dissenters; it 'vaporizes' them, meaning that all evidence of a person's existence is eliminated forever.

The reason Winston Smith is such a compelling character is that he one man fighting against the system, an average citizen caught up in a world that he barely understands, struggling to keep himself sane. Smith's story has parallels to Franz Kafka's "The Trial," a story of a man who is arrested by an authority that is both amorphous and mysterious and spends the entire novel trying to figure out why. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Smith is immersed in a similar world of shadowy figures, abhorrent laws and cruel punishments.

Another disturbing aspect of Nineteen Eighty-Four is how much of Orwell's vision of the future rings true today. This question has become more urgent in light of recent revelations that the American and British governments have been engaged in top-secret mass surveillance programs. Many would argue that some of Orwell's predictions have already come true with issues of privacy and surveillance, and when you read passages like this one, which appears early on in Nineteen Eighty-Four, it would be hard to disagree:
"How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live - did live, from habit that became instinct -- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized."
But what Orwell didn't get right was the power of the individual in the new world order. Thanks to relatively cheap and accessible technologies, the individual has been empowered as never before. New communications tools and platforms have allowed individuals to express a diverse range of thoughts and opinions, as well as start companies, form communities, raise money, support causes and even topple governments.

The subtle irony of the technological revolution, however, is that computers may have freed us from the chains of big government and opened the doors for unprecedented social change, but in the process we have become slaves to that very technology, unable to tear ourselves away from our smarthones, laptops, tablets and PCs. 

Nineteen Eighty-four may be a disturbing novel on many levels, and it raises many questions about authority and the individual's place within society, but it deserves to be read. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

The higher purpose of a solo journey

Wild, From Lost To Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
By Cheryl Strayed, published by Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc. (2012)

In 1982 (aged 23), I embarked on a solo bike trip through England, France and Spain. What compelled me to take this impulsive adventure I can't say for sure. I was neither an athlete nor a cyclist. I flew from Toronto to London, England, bought a road bike and began my journey. It just seemed like the right thing to do at that time in my life.

Memories of that youthful trip came flooding back to me as I read Cheryl Strayed's "Wild," a non-fiction memoir of her three-month solo hike through the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 1995, when she was 26. A solo journey is something many young men and women do for deeply personal reasons; for some it’s a spiritual quest, for others a physical challenge and a test of character. Strayed makes no  bones about the fact that she needed this trip to help her heal from the death of her mother, a recent divorce, a heroin addiction and other demons.

In "Wild," Strayed recounts the highs and lows of her long hike: her brushes with wild animals, encounters with fellow hikers and the daily challenges in keeping herself alive. She writes with tremendous conviction and honesty, and her tone is both humbling and lyrical. I particularly enjoyed her many descriptions of the beauty and majesty of the PCT, including this one:
"It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With that it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way... It was what I knew before I even really did, before I could have known how truly hard and glorious the PCT would be, how profoundly the trail would both shatter and shelter me."
"Wild" moves more or less chronologically from the start of the trip in the Mojave Desert until the end at the Bridge of the Gods at the Oregon-Washington border. But the narration is punctuated by flashbacks from Strayed's past (conversations with friends, family members and acquaintances), which adds depth and poignancy to her tale.

Strayed's PCT hike was undertaken almost on a whim, but as her story progresses, there almost seems to be a higher power at work - guiding her, testing her and protecting her. Throughout her many trials and tribulations, she never loses faith. Readers of any age will feel moved, inspired and elevated by her story.

If you've never experienced an extended solo journey, the idea might seems odd, exotic, or pointless. But for those who have undertaken such a journey, the exercise is far from pointless. For many (including myself), it provides a kind of necessary escape and a rebirth. It offers closure, perspective, adventure, and a reaffirmation of life. 

Some personal journeys are fascinating, educational and entertaining in and of themselves. Others manage to transcend those defined boundaries to become something more resonant and lasting. "Wild" easily falls into the latter category, a life-affirming story that will live in my memory and imagination for years to come, a story that I'm pleased to recommend to anyone who has ever taken (or contemplated) a solo journey.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Mitch Joel connects the digital dots in Control Alt Delete

Control Alt Delete: Reboot Your Business. Reboot Your Life. Your Future Depends on It.
By Mitch Joel

Published by Grand Central Publishing - Hachette Book Group (2013)

Two years ago, a 15 year-old Brit named Nick D'Aloisio developed a mobile news app called Summly. This past March, his story made headlines when he sold his startup to Yahoo for a reported $30 million.

After reading that story, words like 'fast,' 'bright,' 'nimble,' and 'simplify' popped into my head. These are the same words that appear throughout Mitch Joel's instructive new book, entitled Control Alt Delete: Reboot Your Business. Reboot Your Life. Your Future Depends on It.

These are words that could also describe many of today's hottest new technologies, businesses and movements. In Control Alt Delete, Mitch delivers a passionate plea for businesses and individuals to re-think how they are using digital tools and platforms. He argues that many companies exist in a digital Purgatory: they may claim to have thousands of followers on social media, but if they aren't actively engaging those followers with good, useful content, opportunities are being squandered.

For savvy businesses like Zappos, Apple and Salesforce.com, it's all about being authentic, transparent, and adding value. When companies focus on providing a great user experience, they will be rewarded with increased attention and relevance. Companies that continue to 'push' stale messages into the marketplace using traditional (or new) media will not connect with their customers, and they will lose business.

In learning how to connect with customers, Mitch uses the apt term 'utilitarianism' as it applies to the end user:
"What is 'utilitarianism marketing? It's not about advertising, it's not about messaging, and it's not about immediate conversions. It's about providing a true value and utilizing something consumers not only would want to use - constantly and consistently - but would derive so much value from it that is would be given front-and-centre attention in their lives."
Control Alt Delete is divided into two parts: the first part examines how businesses are utilizing new technologies to leverage their messages and brands; the second part focuses on the power of the individual to connect with the wider online community. The book reads quickly, but it contains treasure trove of anecdotes, ideas, and advice on harnessing new digital tools and technologies.

Today, it's never been easier to start a business or to deliver a message. If you've got a great idea, and the skills to bring that idea to market, there are countless resources available online that can help you to fund, develop, promote and distribute your products/services not just locally, but globally. Mitch talks about the so-called gatekeepers (talent scouts, agents, publishing  houses, et. all) who once controlled the destinations of aspiring artists and businesspeople.

Nowadays business owners and artists of all stripes don't need gatekeepers to achieve success. They can launch their own products and careers using digital platforms (many of which are free). They research new ideas and explore new markets with relative ease and for nominal costs. Indeed, the phrase 'fail quick and fail often' has become something of a catchphrase for a new generation of risk takers and entrepreneurs in today's digital universe.  

Mitch's tone is personal and disarming (meaning it's free of digibabble). Control Alt Delete is a handy guide that will appeal to anyone who is interested in learning how to better understand and use digital tools and platforms to increase their reach and relevance. That  means large corporations, small and medium sized businesses, solopreneurs, artists, philanthropists, students, administrators, working professionals - in short, anyone who wants to gain a foothold and an advantage in the online world.

In addition to reading Control Alt Delete, readers would be wise to check out Mitch's Twist Image blog and his weekly Twist Image podcast. Mitch is a thought leader who continues to inspire and dazzle audiences with his insights, observations, and his incredible knack for connecting the digital dots.  

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The First World War illuminated through the lens of Follett's fiction

Fall of Giants, by Ken Follett
Book One of the Century Trilogy
Published by Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2010

Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants is the first of a trilogy of novels covering major political events of the 20 century. This first installment begins in 1911 and finishes as the dust clouds are settling across Europe and Russia after the First World War.

The hardcover edition is a hefty 985 pages, which isn’t surprising considering the extraordinary range of historical events and characters that Follett brings to life in this story. By all accounts, this is an epic narrative achievement that will keep readers riveted from start to finish.

The novel begins inside the home of David Williams, who is employed by the Miner’s Federation Union of South Wales. David’s son, Billy, is about to begin his working life as a collier at the age of 13 (not unusual for the time). His elder sister, Ethel, has just arrived home to wish him well in his new career. Ethel works as a housekeeper for Earl Fitzherbert and his wife, Russian-born Princess Bea.

Being poor and working class, Billy and Ethel inhabit a vastly different world than Fitzherbert and Princess Bea. But with Follett’s deft storytelling skills, all of these lives collide against the backdrop of socio-economic and political events between 1911 and 1924. In addition to the escalating tensions among the superpowers, Follett introduces other seminal events that were just as weighty as the war itself, including the Suffragette movement and the sharp class divisions between rich and poor in England, and the grinding poverty and desperation among the peasantry that sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution.

Fall of Giants is a populated mostly by fictional characters, although some real historical characters make cameo appearances – Winston Churchill, Woodrow Wilson, King George V, Paul von Hindenburg – which gives the story a sense of heightened drama and authenticity. My favourite character is Grigori, a street-smart Russian who starts out working in a locomotive factory and winds up working alongside Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

As the First World War unfolds, Follett does a great job shifting scenes quickly and effortlessly – it almost feels as though he’s performing a magic trick. We move from the cramped, dusty mines of South Wales to the wood-panelled drawing rooms of Fitzherbert’s country estate to the squalid streets of St. Petersburg, without missing a beat. Follett keeps the action moving swiftly at all times, and he cleverly avoids the temptation of over-analyzing situations and bombarding readers with descriptions of weaponry and battles.

To get a sense of how precise and succinct Follett’s writing is, here’s a passage describing the thoughts of one of the central characters, Walter von Ulrich, a military attaché who is present at a meeting of the German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm and his generals at the beginning of 1917. The war is at a stalemate, and Germany is trying to figure out its next big move.
They waited two hours, then Kaiser Wilhelm came in, wearing a general’s uniform. Everyone sprang to their feet. His Majesty looked pale and ill-tempered. He was a few days shy of his fifty-eighth birthday. As ever, he held his withered left arm motionless at his side, attempting to make it inconspicuous. Walter found it difficult to summon up that emotion of joyous loyalty that had come so easily to him as a boy. Wilhelm II was too obviously an unexceptional man completely overwhelmed by events. Incompetent, bewildered, and miserably unhappy, he was a standing argument against hereditary monarchy.

The First World War claimed the lives of eight million men and left most of Europe in ruins. One cannot comprehend that type of human loss and the suffering and hardship that many more millions of people endured throughout Europe, Russia and the Commonwealth. With Fall of Giants, readers may not be able to comprehend the horrors of that war, but they will certainly better understand the complex network of alliances, events, personalities and decisions that led up to it.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Donny Deutsch’s brash account of a life spent in advertising

Often Wrong, Never in Doubt – Unleash the Business Rebel Within
By Donny Deutsch, written with Peter Knobler
Published by HarperCollins Publishers in 2005

Often Wrong, Never in Doubt is the inspirational story of adman Donny Deutsch. It’s a candid, pull-no-punches story about a life spent in the trenches of the advertising business, not to mention being a fun and entertaining read.

Donny goes into detail about his early years growing up in Queens, New York, his indifference to schooling and the educational system, his years searching for a career, his relationship with his father, and his prime years working in advertising.

Donny’s career starts in earnest, when he accepts a job working at a boutique ad agency owned by his father. His brash style, swagger and personality were a perfect fit for the advertising business. Over a 20-year span, starting in 1989 when he finally took over his father’s agency, Donny helped to build the company into one of the most successful and celebrated ad agencies in the U.S.

From early on in his career, Donny eschewed orthodox thinking. He knew how traditional ad agencies worked and he wanted no part of it at his agency. The status quo dictated that art directors, copywriters and account managers had clearly-defined roles, and there was no working outside of those parameters. Donny believed in the cross-pollination of ideas and talent; if a junior account manager had a great idea, then the idea was given equal consideration with ideas generated from seasoned veterans.

There is no mistaking Donny’s sense of pride and confidence. This is clearly evident when he describes some of the many successful campaigns that his agency produced, for clients ranging from drug companies (Pfizer) and automakers (General Motors) to retailing giants (Ikea) and telecommunications firms (Verizon).

By his own admission, Donny’s personality is part intellectual and part goofball. That’s part of his charm. He can be extremely insightful about any subject under the sun – such as when describing the current, sad state of political advertising in the U.S., or quite funny, when describing the sexual morays of past presidents (“Despite the stern appearances of the President and the First Lady, you knew that Ronald and Nancy Reagan were getting down….”). Underneath the bluster, however, is a keen intelligence at work, a forceful personality and a delightful chronicler of the ad industry, and about western culture.

Anyone who works in advertising and marketing will gain something useful in reading Often Wrong, Never in Doubt, or by tuning into old episodes of Donny’s CNBC talk show called The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch (2004 -2008). Many of those episodes reside on YouTube.