Business

The serendipity of finding titles, part two.

If you'll remember, yesterday I wrote about my lazy person's way of stumbling upon a wide variety of titles that I want to read in my library's catalog. The books in question were Wisdom of the Last Farmer: Harvesting Legacies from the Land (by David Mas Masumoto), and Harvesting the Bay: Fathers, Sons and the Last of the Wild Shellfishermen (by Ray Huling).

I really wanted to read it, but I didn't actually get the chance to start the Masumoto book before it had to go back to the library. Instead, for whatever reason, I picked up the second book (Harvesting the Bay) one night when I couldn't sleep. Ray Huling's investigative memoir about the shellfishermen on Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay (quahoggers) is a mix of work/job reporting and sociological history combined with personal memoir (as Huling comes from a long line of such shellfishermen). I came to think of it as "Studs Terkel meets Michael Perry."

I really liked Huling's personal insight into a job I'd never heard anything about. And a lot of what he had to say eerily echoed my own personal experience as the daughter of a farmer (another labor-intensive, singular profession):

"My father and grandfather also trained me to regret the loss of large numbers of hours to work, another dissuasion from my professional activities. One of the great attractions of quahogging is the trade-off it provides: You work hard so you don't have to work a lot. There's an adage for this: Quahoggers ain't lazy, but they don't want to work. This is something they say about themselves. It's an idea virtually unknown to the community of people outside the quahogging fold. The sentiment resides in me, but I am no quahogger, which, again, leaves me ill-prepared for the wonderful opportunities afforded me by a life of mental labor. This doesn't mean that I myself am motivated to do the right thing. I am caught between the bullraker and the world he righteously derides. If my position were grander, it would be tragic: I have all of the bullraker's scorn and none of his discipline." (p. 36.)

I really enjoyed that. I've never been very good at office or full-time professional work, and I always thought at least part of that was my upbringing on the farm. I never had any patience for meetings or any work that seemed more like "make work" than actually producing anything of value (like food).

Huling also had interesting things to say on the broader economic and social impact of the profession of shellfishing:

"On the national level, the proper action is so clear and obvious as to be banal: universal, single-payer health care. Sustainable food relies on people who perform hard manual labor, and the society that benefits from their suffering should do its best to alleviate it in the most direct way. Mike McGiveney wasn't kidding when he said that the cost of health care drove quahoggers off the water. The rising cost of insurance, insurance companies' pernicious attempts to deny care at every opportunity, and the willingness of health-care professionals to abet the insurance companies convinced many guys that the very communities they had helped to feed would throw them to the wolves once their bodies gave out after years of toil." (p. 265.)

As you can see from the text snippets I've provided, this is not narrative-driven writing that you just fly through. It's more along the lines of Wendell Berry writing, where you have to read a little bit and then take a break to digest it. At times it's a bit dry, a bit too technical about how quahogging works, but overall it's a fascinating, fascinating read. Consider checking it out.


Aging with Leonardo DiCaprio.

I've really turned a corner on Leonardo DiCaprio.

Wait a minute: I can relate this to nonfiction, I promise.

I always really enjoyed DiCaprio as an actor, and although his look was not particularly for me, I did always think he was quite the cutie (especially in favorite films of mine, like "Romeo + Juliet"). And then one day, it was like he grew up. All of a sudden. And into this rather broad man with a goatee who I didn't think was cute at all. So for years I was rather meh on him, and I was definitely too lazy to see (and try to figure out) Inception, although Mr. CR liked that movie.

And then I saw The Great Gatsby. Which was no real great shakes as a movie. But I thought DiCaprio really hit his role out of the park. He gave me the same feeling that I get watching Brad Pitt--you're always aware its Brad Pitt, and yet he really manages to disappear into the role he's playing. I was never not aware it wasn't DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby, but he WAS Jay Gatsby.

LeoAnd this week he arrived in my home, on the cover of my New York magazine. And although I still hate his goatee, I must say: he looks good. And I thought, huh, I've come to appreciate Leonardo, all grown up. And then I read that he's just a few months younger than me, and I thought, huh again, Leo and I have grown up together. Funny. And the article was interesting. And here's how I can relate it to nonfiction: this fall he'll be starring in a movie he helped finance, based on a nonfiction memoir titled The Wolf of Wall Street. Don't know that I'll be able to go see it (and it looks almost too depressing, if funny, to stand), but here's the trailer, if you're interested. Seems particularly and ironically appropriate a story to talk about, on Labor Day weekend. Hope you have a good one.


A bit more about George Packer's The Unwinding.

I felt very unfulfilled by what I wrote yesterday about George Packer's book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. I feel I am not giving you the flavor of the book, or explaining why I couldn't seem to put it down, even though it was a downer.

One thing I would like to say that I particularly appreciated in Packer's choice of interviewees and subjects was his choosing Americans from all over the spectrum: from the factory worker to the political operative to Peter Thiel and other Silicon Valley luminaries. In fact, the Peter Thiel/Silicon Valley parts of the book were the ones I found the most informative. This sounds terrible to say, but I've now read so many books about the loss of our manufacturing base, failing heartland cities (Detroit among them), and working-class woes that none of the narratives from those perspectives particularly surprised me or provided new knowledge. But many of the points-of-view and ideas given by Thiel, the PayPal billionaire, were quite interesting (although Thiel in general gave me the super-heebies, also making him a fascinating character):

"At Cafe Venetia in downtown Palo Alto...Thiel pulled an iPhone out of his jeans pocket and said, 'I don't consider this to be a technological breakthrough.'

Compared to the Apollo space program or the supersonic jet, a smartphone looked small. In the forty years leading up to 1973, there had been huge technological advances, and wages had increased sixfold. Since then, Americans beguiled by mere gadgetry had forgotten how expansive progress could be...

The information age arrived on schedule, but without the utopia. Cars, trains, and planes were not much better than they had been in 1973.* The rising price of oil and food showed a complete failure to develop energy and agriculture technology. Computers didn't create enough jobs to sustain the middle class, didn't produce revolutionary improvements in manufacturing and productivity, didn't raise living standards across classes. Thiel had come to think that the Internet was a 'net plus, but not a big one.' Apple was mostly a 'design innovator.' Twitter would give job security to five hundred people for the next decade, 'but how much value does it create for the entire economy?' Facebook, which had made Thiel a billionaire, was 'on balance positive,' because it was radical enough to have been banned in China. But that was all he would say for the celebrated era of social media. All the companies he invested in probably employed fewer than fifteen thousand people." (p. 383.)

There is a LOT to unpack in just those few paragraphs, and a lot to think about. I suspect that's why this book took me so long to read, even though it's quite readable--there's a lot of paragraphs like that, that you almost have to take the time to digest.

There. I feel I've done the book more credit now.

*I might also point out there are similar problems in health care, since I've read several times in the past months about how the maternal death rate from childbirth is now higher than it was in 1978.


Are we unwinding?

When I got George Packer's The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America from the library, I'm pretty sure I started reading it that night--I was very excited to see it, as I am a fan of George Packer's. When I started it, I did have difficulty putting it down, but since I finished it, it's been sitting on my night table while I try to think what to say about it.

I don't really know what to say about it.

Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and I get the feeling he's got a pretty good grasp on most issues of American economics and culture. In this book, he chooses not to write a straightforward journalistic investigation of such topics as the loss of America's manufacturing base, the problems of our political systems, and many more, but rather gives the reader a picture of them by interweaving several character portraits. The individuals whose stories he tells through the narrative are Dean Price (an idealistic and optimistic entrepreneur of the type typically presented as the type that will "save our country" with their entrepreneurial drive); Jeff Connaughton (a longtime political operative); Tammy Thomas (an Ohio woman whose town and economic situation keeps worsening due to lost jobs and dropping wages); and Peter Thiel (the Silicon Valley billionaire who founded PayPal). In between he also provides short chapters briefly sketching the biographical details of such American luminaries as Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, Robert Rubin, and many others.

It's an interesting way to provide a snapshot of America. Typically I prefer a more straightforward piece of nonfiction, like Matt Taibbi's Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History, but there's no denying that this type of investigative storytelling makes for fascinating (if sad) reading as well. What surprised me a little bit was how long it took me to read the book--you don't feel like it's taking a long time while you read, and the stories are all character-based and move right along, but you can feel the depth of detail, research, and work behind Packer's writing. It really is, to put it as simply as possible, a somewhat amazing book. Depressing, of course, because it left me with the feeling of, well, what can we possibly do now?, and because (as some critics have charged, conservative David Brooks among them) Packer doesn't really provide any overarching statements or analysis. Normally I like some overall theme or structure myself, but this book works better without it. For lack of a better description, it drops you right in there with Americans facing a future that does not appear to be getting brighter. In some ways it reminded me of Joe Bageant's excellent Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War. In other ways it reminded me of Chris Hedges's Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, although I think this was a stronger book because Packer doesn't rely on overblown rhetoric as much as Hedges does (and he also doesn't present the Occupy movement as any kind of great hope for future change). 

This has been a dry review; sorry about that. I was actually a little stunned by this book, and I'd suggest giving it a try, but don't read it at bedtime. It's not relaxing. (And if you're going to read any of the review links below, go for the Christian Science Monitor one--it includes a great interview with Packer.)

Other reviews: The Guardian | Christian Science Monitor | Huffington Post


Downer Book Week: Down the Up Escalator

I know, I know, you're starting to feel a little down just reading these reviews, aren't you? Well, hang in, we're getting through the week.

Barbara Garson's Down the Up Escalator: How the 99 Percent Live in the Great Recession was a book I saw on many "forthcoming books" nonfiction lists earlier this spring, and the title intrigued me enough so that I put a hold on it at the library. Then I heard the author speak on public radio, and while I didn't hear the entire program, I liked her point that we are thinking of our current financial situation in America all wrong--most peole date our financial "crisis" to 2008, while Garson posits that things have really not been that great (particularly for working stiffs) for a lot longer than that, back even to the late 1970s. The book is divided into three segments representing our financial lives: Our Jobs, Our Homes, and Our Savings.

And of course nothing here is that big a surprise either (at least, not if you're a downer book addict like me):

--"By the fall of 2010 there were fourteen million officially unemployed Americans--40 percent of them classified as the long-term unemployed. An additional ten million were working part-time but said they wanted full-time jobs. Fifteen million more had dropped out of the labor force since this recession began." (p. 46.)

--"California was the Wild West of mortgage innovation. Nine out of the top ten subprime lenders were based in California before the crash, and so were most of the top ten mortgage banks that failed. California has 12 percent of the U.S. population, but between 2005 and 2007 more than 56 percent of America's subprime mortgages originated in California..." (p. 149.)

But this is a book that's more about personal stories and analysis than a recitation of numbers. Consider this exchange between Garson and one of her interview subjects:

--"'What am I looking at here in Evansville?' I asked the lean fifty-year-old [Charles Whobrey, president of the local Teamster union] as he led us into his cubbyhole of an office. 'How could a town have gotten this depressed since Lehman Brothers collapsed?'

''You're not looking at the effects of just this recession,' he asserted. 'So many people here survive paycheck to paycheck, obviously living beyond their means, that when something like this hits...well, let me go back.

'I started working for the union in 1981...I started in March, and not a month later President Reagan fired the air traffic controllers. Permanently fired the strikers. That doesn't happen much in American history. Killing PATCO [the air traffic controllers' union] sent the signal to business--as it was supposed to--that it was okay to get rid of the unions. 'Uh-oh,' I said, 'I have the knack for gettin' involved right when the wheel's going into the mud.'"

And with unions went wages..." (p. 82.)

It's kind of a strange read. Garson does not, for the most part, provide really shocking details of homelessness or utter destitution. What she DOES provide is a rather unnerving portrait of an increasingly large group of people finding it a bit tougher, every single day, to keep and find jobs, to keep making their house payments, to stay out of debt after experiencing a health setback, to have anything for retirement; in other words, pretty much everyone's growing daily monetary struggles.

I have read other similar books that I liked somewhat better: Richard Longworth's Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism, for instance, or even Louis Uchitelle's The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences, which was published before 2008 and was therefore all the more prescient. But I did enjoy Garson's viewpoint, and I'd never heard of her before, so now I may look into some of her earlier books (including Electronic Sweatshop and All the Livelong Day: The Meaning and Demeaning of Routine Work).


Downer Book Week: End of the Good Life

I know. You read a book with a title like End of the Good Life: How the Financial Crisis Threatens a Lost Generation--And What We Can Do about It, what do you expect it to be, except a downer?

Froymovich, herself a member of the Millennial generation, describes many of the economic factors that are currently working against those born between the years of the late 1970s and early 2000s. Among them are governmental austerity measures, uncertain global economics, higher unemployment rates and a poor job market, and rising education and student loan costs.

She does not paint a very optimistic picture.

Again, nothing in this book particularly surprised me: I've seen for myself and know many others who have found the job market to be tough going for the last few years. (Generation X hasn't exactly been raking in the dough either.) And it was definitely not a very "narrative" read; Froymovich interviewed lots of people and there are, therefore, many personal stories and insights throughout her book, but overall it has a definite "wonky" feel--heavy on the numbers and economic policy facts--but that was definitely part of why I found it such an informative read.

So what has been contributing to the loss of the American (and, to an extent, European) dream? Things like:

--"From 1990 to 2010, tuition and fees at public four-year universities more than doubled and the prices of two-year colleges climbed by 71 percent, while median household income rose just 2 percent." (p. 37.)

--"Since the crisis [of 2008], a quarter of young adults reported delaying marriage and about one-third have delayed starting a family." (p. 39.)

There's many more facts here than those, and the author offers a surprisingly global look at these challenges (and the political short-term thinking and austerity plans that continue to make a bad situation worse), but unfortunately I was an idiot and didn't bookmark many of the passages I found interesting.

One aspect of the book in which I was disappointed was its lack of better suggestions for the future or concrete ideas for improving one's own personal lot. And when such suggestions were made, they seemed to focus largely on the need for Generation Yers to "become entrepreneurs."* Consider this, as one of her positive case examples:

"Dollar Shave Club is another one of those great ideas. Cofounded in 2012 by Michael Dubin, just 33 years old, the company offers a subscription plan and delivery service for basic razor blades for men's grooming. Shaving supplies are often expensive, and men have to remember to restock regularly...Depending on the plan a customer chooses, the program costs just $3 to $9 a month, compared to fancy razors bought in a store that can cost more than $12 for the handle alone and $20 for a four-pack of refill cartridges. Dollar Shave Club can undercut the competition by cutting out the middleman--stores. It operates solely online. The company hired manufacturers in China and South Korea to make their blades cheaply." (p. 193.)

If you want to take a global view on that, how does it help the young people in China and South Korea?

So the ending annoyed me. But the rest of the book? I didn't think I was going to stick with it, and yet I did. And it provided a different look at current economic and political policy, which I appreciated.

*This line of thinking always pisses me off. First and foremost: not everyone wants to become an entrepreneur, for chrissake, and not everyone should have to become one. Also, there is increasingly NO POSSIBLE FRICKING WAY to cover your health insurance or health costs as an entrepreneur (unless you are one of the entrepreneurs who turns out to be, you know, Mark Zuckerberg, or someone like that). Take it from a freelancer: one of the only ways to make it as a freelancer is to marry some other poor sap who has a health insurance plan you can join.


Back in the reading saddle.

I realized the other day that I have a different book going in every room of the house (and one in my backpack), and it feels really, really...good. It feels like I am getting back to myself again, reading-wise.

So what's going on where? Details to follow, but in the bathroom I have a novel by a British author I've always enjoyed, in the bedroom is a book on how Generation Y is getting royally screwed, economically speaking (nice light bedtime reading, dontcha know), in my bag is a memoir that I'm not quite sure about but am going to stick with anyway, in the living room is a somewhat depressing book (book info toward the bottom of that post) that I've had to take a small pause from, and in the kitchen waits a book I started a few weeks back and really must get back to, because it is fascinating. Oh, and how could I forget a book about books, which, interestingly enough, has a chapter about being in the middle of too many books (and which roves around as I carry it from room to room and outside)? Add to that some books on gardening (every year in spring I read about gardening, rather than actually gardening) and some on toilet training (although, sadly, neither CRjr nor I are too interested), and you have a full reading slate.

It's lovely.


Looking for a few good business book reviewers.

I still periodically review books for Library Journal, and in with my last book they included this message:

"I need more reviewers with a strong grounding in business, able to take on a variety of books covering topics across the range of economics, whether it's exploring American capitalism, or the domestic and global impacts/causes of the Great Recession, investigating small business profiles and leadership models, or considering a biography of Warren Buffett!

If you have colleagues who may be interested in becoming a reviewer in such subject areas, please ask them to email me: Annalisa Pesek, at apesek@mediasourceinc.com."

Just thought I'd pass that along. You don't get paid for your reviews, but the business books aren't all that demanding, and it can be a nice credit for your skills list if you're looking for that sort of thing. Plus, sometimes you get real stinker books, but a lot of the business books I've read for LJ have been quite interesting.


I at least like my manifestos to be helpful.

I was thoroughly annoyed by Charles J. Selden's The Consumerist Manifesto Handbook: The Guerilla's Guide to Making Corporations Pay for Faulty Goods, Substandard Services, and Broken Promises.

ManifestoAlthough I don't really have the energy to become a "consumer guerrilla," I do largely agree with the author that most corporations are out to make cheap, sell high, and by no means to provide anything approximating decent customer service. Largely I deal with this belief by striving not to buy anything I don't have to, but invariably, there are things a person needs.* And because I am the world's worst shopper, I somehow always manage (I feel) to get taken advantage of. So I thought this would be a handy little book for learning a few techniques for making complaints and actually getting them resolved.

Sadly: not so. Selden spends most of his book describing ways in which corporations take advantage of consumers (through various methods such as rushing goods to market; accepting a certain number of defects in their products because they'll make more money off them than they'll have to spend in resolving complaints; quality fade; customer disservice; etc.). Yeah, you're preaching to the choir here, Selden, I already KNOW that's what corporations are doing. I'm not saying a little background isn't helpful, but this is all old news for anyone who has bought any consumer goods in the past ten years.

Selden is also very good at relating stories about what a clever consumer guerrilla he is, most of which I just found obnoxious. Consider:"When I buy a prepackaged bag of food labeled fresh, I put any suspicious pieces--in their original containers--in the Returns Area of our pantry...Going to the minor trouble of retaining a couple of potatoes from a 5-pound bag, or even a couple of berries from a 1-pound box, nets me refunds for the entire container. Food retailers charge more for food because it is labeled 'fresh,' reason enough to raise consumerist expectations. Every potato and every berry had better be good--and fresh--or I'll expect a refund for the whole package--even if the majority was consumed." (p. 42.)

Now, that paragraph raises all sorts of questions. Were the majority of the foods they consumed actually "fresh" enough to meet their expectations, with one or two truly offending potatoes or berries really being "unfresh," or was the author just pulling a fast one, getting a refund for food already eaten?**

Later on the author discusses his wife's predilection for fancy-name clothes from Bergdorf Goodman***, and how he bought her a Barbara Bui suit on sale for $370 (marked down from $1,850), mailing it back to BG after ten months because its "feathery lapels" had started to lose feathers, and asking for an explanation or replacement. When they didn't hear back for a month, they called BG, who could confirm they had received the suit back but couldn't find it. Eventually BG offered to compensate them for losing the suit, asking them what they paid for it originally. The author's answer? The truthful (but again: dicey morally?) gambit, "I think it sold for around $1,800." BG offered a credit of $1,250, and the author took it, making $880 off a suit his wife wore for ten months.

I don't know what you think about that, but I'll tell you what I think: Gross. 

A greater problem with the book is that, although you may pick up some consumerist tips buried in the author's self-congratulating stories, the actual section on how to deal successfully with corporations that have you screwed you over only constitutes about twenty pages of the book (pages 155 through 172). It contains some not unhelfpul suggestions: have a couple of credit cards ready to use so you can always dispute charges on one or the other, document your purchases, write letters and find company officer names and phone numbers so you can call them at times amenable to you, not them, and so on. The appendix listing online resources is also not unhelpful.

But all in all: start your consumer guerrilla career by not spending the $14.95 on this book.

*The other day Mr. CR said to me, "hey, you have a big tear in your shorts, in a fairly obvious spot" (meaning, "I can see your underwear, and I don't want to, and neither do our neighbors"). And I said, "Oh NO...this is my one pair of shorts!" I can only hope that hot weather doesn't return any time soon.

**I get his larger point. Corporations shouldn't charge a premium for "freshness" if they can't back it up. But this is a level of semantics--and deliberations with front-line grocery store workers--to which I am simply too lazy to go. And I remember what I used to think of shoppers who came back to my farmers' market stand, demanding refunds for my produce that they'd eaten. It was not kind.

***How hilarious is that? Even when such "name" merchandise is on sale, talk about "made-up" value, that consumers impose upon themselves. I don't think you can blame companies for that one.


Tuesday Article: The real problem with the economy.

I really enjoy reading the Christian Science Monitor online, although it's typically depressing as hell.

I found this article (written by Robert Reich) on one of the biggest problems in our economy echoed what I've been thinking for years but could never verbalize so well. If you don't have time to read the whole article, here's one of my favorite paragraphs out of it:

"The crisis of American capitalism marks the triumph of consumers and investors over workers and citizens. And since most of us occupy all four roles – even though the lion’s share of consuming and investing is done by the wealthy – the real crisis centers on the increasing efficiency by which all of us as consumers and investors can get great deals, and our declining capacity to be heard as workers and citizens."

Incidentally, speaking of deals (or things that are not deals), someone posted yesterday on my post from a million years ago about Melissa & Doug products being crap. I share the comment here in its entirety because I will not rest, people, until all of you stop buying Melissa & Doug products. Thank you.

"Heh! I submitted a one-star review of a dreadful M&D product we were given -- a $35 set of dollar-store craft supplies with 'washable' paint that permanently trashed an easel, table, a bit of the floor, and so much clothing I have difficulty thinking about it, before I realised 'washable' was not 'washable.' The review was never posted. I got an e-mail from "Lisa" thanking me for my "e-mail" with an invitation to call her during [rather restricted times]. I wrote back to say I appreciated the response, but was extremely pressed for time and was not going to have time to make a phone call anytime soon; could she please address this in e-mail? Of course I didn't hear back, and of course my review simply didn't make it on the site. melissaanddoug.com is littered with enthusiastic four and five star reviews; I haven't been able to find any poor ratings or reviews. Apparently they are all simply trashed as mine was, perhaps with a half-hearted attempt at contact from "Lisa." At least the paint disaster was bad enough for me to be rude enough to finally ask the person who had been buying us all the M&D stuff to please stop..."

Thanks for the comment, K.


A different kind of business book.

LocavestingI found Amy Cortese's Locavesting: The Revolution in Local Investing and How to Profit from It to be kind of a nice, straightforward, useful business book.

This places it squarely in the .01% of business books that aren't tired rehashes of management theories, comparisons of business to war and military figures, and crackpot books on personal finance that may or may not be advertisements for the author's own financial business. (See: Safe Money Millionaire --but don't buy it!)

It's not a book to read if you're looking for very basic investment ideas, or if you're looking to get rich quick. What it is is an interesting consideration of various ways that people are starting to invest, financially, in their own communities. The suggestions range from the basic, like putting some of your money in locally or regionally owned community banks, to the more advanced, like forming a community investment organization. Each chapter provides examples and definitions, and ends with a very succinct rundown of the pros and cons of the investment type (community development loan funds, for example, may return slightly more interest than regular CDs, but are also NOT insured by the FDIC) and information on how to get started making such an investment.

Even if you don't have much to invest, it might give you some ideas about community investment options for a day in the future when you might want to give it a go.


Tuesday Article: Best of the best of the best of the best...

I will probably not get around to doing any best or worst lists this year, as just trying to match the Time Magazine Best 100 Nonfiction Titles list is doing me in. However, I did do one "Best of" list for Library Journal this year:

Library Journal Best Business Titles 2011

There's lots of other lists there too, although Library Journal's articles are much shorter this year (I only listed ten Best Biz books, last year it was around 35 or so). And if you're really jonesing for "Best of Books" lists for the year, check out the sidebar at the Reader's Advisor Online, or the exhaustive, exhausting list that Largehearted Boy has going. Have fun!


100 Best-ish Nonfiction Titles: Business

Moving right along in our consideration of the Time list of the top 100 nonfiction titles published in America since 1923, we find the Business titles:

Capitalism and Freedom, by Milton Friedman
Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser
The General Theory, by John Maynard Keynes
How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie
No Logo, by Naomi Klein
Unsafe at Any Speed, by Ralph Nader
What Color Is Your Parachute?, by Richard Nelson Bolles.

Here's where this list stuff starts to get a little dicey, because I really wouldn't call all of these books Business. Fast Food Nation I'd call Investigative, and hell, I'm going to include that as a category eventually, although Time didn't. And the Carnegie and Bolles titles I'd term Self-Help (and the Parachute book not very helpful self-help at that), although I suppose they really are known as business or career books. Still.

And frankly, can anyone who isn't an economics major force themselves to read books by Milton Friedman or John Maynard Keynes? Just reading the titles makes me sleepy.

Hmm, business books. That's a tough one, as a lot of my favorite business books are investigative titles, like Liar's Poker or Moneyball, by Michael Lewis. So what to do? Compromise: List a couple business books, but save most of my picks for a non-Time category of Investigative titles.

Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, John Bowe. Bowe's exploration of modern-day slavery, one of my favorite Business/Investigative titles of all time, contains one of the most perfect insights I've ever read in a book. When discussing our current system of economics, globalization, etc., Bowe pointed out that (I'm paraphrasing) "the system isn't broken, the system is working exactly the way it was set up to work." Think about that one for a while. I literally end up quoting that one to someone or other at least once a week.

In Sam We Trust: The Untold Story of Sam Walton & How Wal-Mart Is Devouring America, Bob Ortega. Fascinating study of Wal-Mart and Sam Walton. It's a crying shame that this one is out of print. It pretty much put me off Wal-Mart for good.

As for actual, business-y business books, I might suggest Andrew Tobias's The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need, just for its sheer readability, and my brother's always been fond of The One-Minute Manager for its succinctness.

Have a great weekend, all. Next week we'll have a few regular book posts, and then finish up our lists. Good times, good times!


Wanted: Good Business Books.

It looks like I'll be making some sort of "best business books" list for Library Journal again this year, and I'd like to cover all my bases. So: does anyone out there want to suggest any business books (published in 2011) that really lit you on fire? I'll happily consider any recommendations--and thanks in advance for any help!

Speaking of business, do consider reading this article from The Atlantic,* about how Americans are working harder and feeling poorer. If you don't have the time to read the article I can nutshell it for you, using a quote from its second paragraph: "Since the recovery began, corporate profits have captured nearly 90 percent of the growth in real income." Ridiculous.

*Thanks to the Lesbrarian, reference librarian with the mostest, for the link.


Waste of a perfectly good title.

I get a lot of my nonfiction reading from a pretty basic source: each month my local library system posts a list of new fiction and nonfiction books in their catalog, and each month I scan the list and order up any titles that tickle my fancy.

So imagine my displeasure when Hugh MacLeod's book, with the awesome title Evil Plans: Having Fun on the Road to World Domination, turned out just to be another business self-help book.

And not a very good one at that. MacLeod is the creator of the gapingvoid.com website, and is best known for drawing cartoons on the back of business cards. In this book he adopts a Seth Godin-esque approach to living your dream: be special, dream big, follow your entrepreneurial plan, etc. Here's the basic idea, from page one: "Everybody needs an Evil Plan that gets them the hell out of the rat race, away from lousy bosses, away from boring, dead-end jobs that they hate. Life is short."

Yeah, yeah. We've heard it all before. Does anyone still believe this stuff? Like this? "Thanks to the Internet, it has never been easier to have an Evil Plan, to make a great living, doing what you love, doing something that matters." p. 1.

In short chapters punctuated by his not-all-that-clever doodles, he holds forth on how you've got to sell not only your product but also your belief system*; how customers have to love your product AND your process; and how you should be overextended doing work you love. It all sounds la-di-da and wonderful, but I challenge you to find someone who can actually make this advice work. (The part about making a great living off the Internet in particular gives me a big chuckle.)

I kept the book in the bathroom for a while, where I read it for giggles, until Mr. CR told me it was depressing him and I had to get rid of it.

*This also puts me in mind of a GREAT quote from the movie Broadcast News, which I recall roughly a million times every day as it is. When Albert Brooks spits out, with such distate, about an anchorman colleague who's more style than substance: "And he'll talk about us all really being salesmen." Such bitterness. Awesome. You should watch the entire movie, but you could also see it here. The pertinent quote is right after the two-minute mark.


Women in Finance (Books) Week: Friday edition.

Well, I didn't really succeed in my quest to find a good, understandable personal finance book by a woman writer. I'll keep looking, though.

Assets The best book by a woman I've seen remains a title I reviewed about a year ago, titled Does This Make My Assets Look Fat?: A Woman's Guide to Finding Financial Empowerment and Success. The author used an annoying dieting analogy (figuring it was something every woman could relate to) as her "hook," but I chose to overlook that because it was the first finance book I read in a long time that I wanted to re-read and take some notes from. This is part of what I said about it in a review for Library Journal:

"What might get lost in this extended metaphor are her definitions, explanations, and suggestions, which are comprehensive and excellent. In addition to covering the basics, the author (a financial advisor with JPMorgan Chase) provides surprisingly in-depth information about investment strategies. Of the books reviewed here, it's the only one I'll give to a friend with investing questions--although only as a loaner, since I also want to keep it."

I'm also on the hold list for The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy, which Unruly Reader liked. I'll let you know how that one goes.


Women in Finance (Books) Week: Filling your "purse."

Welcome to today's installment of Women in Finance (Books) Week!

Purse Today's book is yet another purple one, titled A Purse of Your Own: An Easy Guide to Financial Security, by Deborah Owens. As you can tell by the title (and the book's cover), this is yet another book that thinks layering some analogies on the problem will help women understand finance better. Owens's shtick is to get women to think of their entire financial picture as their "purse."

I don't own or carry a purse, so as you can imagine, this analogy was not as helpful to me as it might be to some.

But, once you get past the analogy stuff, and the author's introductory chapters about "wealthy habits" and "wealthy visions" (she's a big fan, as are most personal finance writers, of helping make yourself wealthy by believing you can BECOME wealthy), there's actually some interesting stuff here. For one thing, she does explain the "Rule of 72" (also, coincidentally, one of my father's favorite tools for understanding numbers): "This simple equation helps you to determine a rough estimate of the length of time it will take to double your money in an investment. Simply divide the number 72 by the annual interest rate or return on your investment." (p. 34.) Find something that pays 4% interest annually? It will take 18 years to double your money (72 divided by 4 equals 18). When authors share this rule, it always makes me feel a bit more secure in their knowledge.

This book also boasts one of the nicer explanations I've seen on bonds, and she doesn't do a bad job with stocks, either. I guess I can put up with a little nonsense about purses to get to some good (if still pretty basic) information.


Women in Finance (Books) Week: Stereotypes Abound

One of my least favorite "tricks" listed in personal finance books for saving money is to "cut out buying your daily latte."

Pretty much everybody says it, and it makes me nuts every time. I don't know what kind of glamorous life these personal finance writers think I'm living, but I can assure you it doesn't include daily lattes.

Broke In today's entry in Women in Finance (Books) Week, we have the latte issue right up front in the title: Nancy Trejos's Hot (Broke) Messes: How to Have Your Latte and Drink It Too. Trejos is a personal finance columnist for The Washington Post, which is amazing, because this woman has no idea how to handle money:

"In January 2005, when I was twenty-eight, I bought an overpriced condo during the height of the real estate boom with my then-boyfriend, later my fiance, and then had to sell it at a loss two years later after we broke up. When I turned thirty, I bought a Volkswagen Beetle that I really couldn't afford because I got sick of my old car and wanted to drive around in something cute...After another bad breakup in April 2007, I blew all sorts of cash on a crazy trip through California..." (p. 6.)

Now, I don't really care what this woman does in her personal life or with her money. But she is a PERSONAL FINANCE COLUMNIST for The Washington Post? How does something like that happen?

This book is also hot pink.

This book is basic in the extreme: use your credit card responsibly, live within your means, be smarter with how you handle your money, especially in relationships, etc. It's really more of a memoir (she also details her experiences working with a financial planner) than a how-to, and unless you really need an introduction to how to control your finances, there will be nothing here for you. And, of course, there's this really annoying bit on page 197, when Trejos is well into (supposedly) taking back control of her finances:

"Over coffee at Starbucks one morning, Christine [her financial planner] and I reviewed my contributions..."

Well, as long as it was coffee, and not a latte.


Women in Finance (books) Week: Suze Orman

Recently I've been reading finance books by and for women. I've been doing this for a few reasons:

1. I honestly enjoy business books, which is weird, because I have no business sense or skills whatsoever.
2. I've been looking for anything that can explain to me how people actually make money in the stock market. I just don't get it.
and
3. I am a woman.

The first thing you learn about finance books for women is that they must have pink or purple covers. (More on this later in the week.) The second thing you learn is that there are a lot of them. One of the best-known authors in this field is Suze Orman.*

Suze Orman is one of those people who, if I'm flipping through channels and find her on PBS or a news program, I can't look away. I think that's largely because she is a spectacular public speaker. (I'm interested in public speaking and how best to do it as well.) She's always immaculately dressed and made up. She uses her hands emphatically while she talks, and when she moves across the stage, she moves deliberately. She makes good eye contact, varies her pitch and tone, and when she answers questions from audience members, you can tell they feel like they're the only person in the room with her, just having a conversation. It's always a performance. But I digress. I also enjoy watching Orman because, although I don't usually learn anything new from her, most of what she says makes sense to me.

Her new book is titled The Money Class: Learn to Create Your New American Dream, which is a genius title, when you think about it. The "new American dream," of course, has more to do with making do with less, etc., although Orman spins this with a genius tagline: "live below your means but within your needs." This one is for investors at a very basic stage in their lives**: those who are trying to use their credit cards less and still need to figure out how to have an emergency fund and save up for big purchases. For better or worse, I'm beyond that stage. (Well, not really in that I have any money, but I do know I have to pay off my credit card balance every month, and have known that since I got a credit card all those millennia ago.)

But I will still read her chapters on 529s and saving for college, because she does have a knack for making things pretty understandable. I'll peruse her chapters on retirement planning. But for the most part her books are for people just starting to think about their finances; her chapters here include tips for renting vs. owning your home, how to talk about finances with your kids, and how to start retirement planning and saving.

The bottom line: I get a kick out of ol' Suze (Mr. CR and I like to look at our pay stubs and crack "live below your means, but within your needs" to each other, and then laugh, bitterly), but she's not really offering a lot of high-level investing tips.

*And thankfully most of Suze's books do NOT have pink or purple covers.

**The first subheading in her "Advice for the Unemployed" chapter is "Cut your spending immediately." Really? Do people really need to be told this?


Why? Why can't I stop reading "frugal living" books?

The latest one I read was so bad it brought to mind one of my favorite quotes from a television show: "It's like watching a car crash. Into puppies."*

Yet another frugal living book I didn't enjoy and didn't learn anything from (but yet read all the way through) was Natalie P. McNeal's The Frugalista Files: How One Woman Got Out of Debt Without Giving Up the Fabulous Life. It's basically McNeal's year-long diary, which was also posted at TheFrugalista.com, of trying to get out of debt and live more frugally. And when I say diary, I mean diary: like a lot of blogs-into-books, it reads like it was lifted wholesale from the website without much of an editorial look-over. I hate that.** This was also published by Harlequin, which should have tipped me off. Nothing against Harlequin, or romances (I like romances, actually, the juicier the better), I just don't think it's a publishing concern known for its work with serious nonfiction.

McNeal's voice is pleasant enough, even though she's not saying anything new (p. 85, ah, it's the obligatory latte quote: "Death to the latte! And it's about time. Middle-class Americans are dropping their $4 lattes and brewing coffee at home."), she doesn't actually get out of all her debt in the course of a year, and she really does, as far as I can tell, give up a lot of the "fabulous life"--for instance, she has to stop traveling as much with her friends. (A lot of her "buy nothing" frugal strategy also seems to be to go along with her friends buying her drinks and dinners out--not a bad strategy, but one you have to be pretty damn charming to pull off.) She does talk at length about her job as a reporter for the Miami Herald, and the downsizing in the newspaper business, which I found interesting (if sad), and I must say I finished the book without rancor, wishing her luck in her freelance career. But all in all? A pretty forgettable read:

"February 3. I had a love affair with George this morning. George Foreman, that is. It's Sunday and I had to work today, so George and I grilled some chicken breasts. I packed the chicken, some salad and an apple in a bag.*** I like this cooking healthy stuff, but it sure isn't as filling as eating out." (p. 20.)

So why? WHY can't I stop reading these frugal books? I rarely find them helpful, and they're now actively starting to annoy me, as I'm finding it increasingly naive to think we're all going to "frugal" the country back into shape--as if not buying as many meals out is going to put a dent in our personal debt (or our national spending, much of which is disappearing into the money pit that is our "defense" and military spending. For some reason these books are like candy to me****, but much like candy, I think it's probably time to give them up.

*Oh, the short-lived CBC series "An American in Canada," we hardly got to know ye.

**I like blogs, and I like books. I like them for different reasons. This is not to say a good blog can't make a good book, but come on, people, tidy up your writing a little bit when publishing it in book form.

***I think she needs the serial comma here too.

****I ate so much candy this weekend it was obscene.