What-the-Dickens, Gregory Maguire

Book 43

In 2007, “the Wicked guy” went back to his roots in children’s literature and published What-the-Dickens¬: The Story of a Rogue Tooth Fairy. I say “published” rather than “wrote” because I am not convinced he didn’t have it sitting on a shelf somewhere waiting for a rainy day. In the author’s bio, Maguire says:

“I gave a writing assignment to some middle-school kids. I told them to write about the meeting between an impossible creature and an ordinary citizen. I did the assignment myself, and I came up with an ancient bedridden grandmother mistaking a lost tooth fairy for the Angel of Death. Eventually, the story evolved…”

This is a story within a story that has three kids stranded with a cousin in what seemed to me to be post-apocalyptic setting. I guess it was just a hurricane, but this was a seriously isolated group. Anyway.

What-the-Dickens is actually the fairy’s name. He was lost or abandoned at birth and stumbles into another fairy, who was a member of some colony or another of fairies. The two worlds – the real one and the fairy one – are only fleshed out from a very narrow perspective, which isn’t terrible, but isn’t exactly Harry Potter. And just as our world view is starting to expand, both the “real” world and the fairy world, the book is over.

It was another “what the heck happens next?” book. Sometimes, that means a writer has a series on his hands. In this case, I felt like I hung in with this until the end and there was no payoff. Beh.

Seducing the Boys Club, by Nina DiSesa

Book 42

I put down the Mailer book, good as it is, when I saw Seducing the Boys Club, by Nina DiSesa at the Library Used Book Store. I opened it to a random page in the middle, thinking it would be lame chick lit. But it was insightful. Damn.

DiSesa is a leader in the advertising industry, which I understand to be the worst of the cut-throat old boys’ clubs. So there are some awesome and shocking stories of inappropriate behavior in the workplace. The foul language alone made me cringe. I am happy to say that there were few anecdotes that really hit home for me.

There is, however, some good advice to be had. The theme is that women should stop trying to be men and use their strengths. “Reading the room” is a great example. DiSesa tells a story about asking a team how a client meeting went. The men all thought it was fine. The women in the room knew that it wasn’t fine. The client was unhappy and extremely close to dropping them. The men had been listening to what the client was saying. The women were reading the body language. The women were right and they saved the business.

She defends the concepts of “seduction” and “manipulation”, saying that these are not bad words. They describe how to get people to do what you want them to do, which we all do every day. There are plenty of variations of the advice: “make them think it was their own idea”.

DiSesa has a line that she says we are to tattoo to our wrists:

“Men like women who like them”.

It is so simple and so true. [Note: My mother wants you all to know that people like people who like them. The insight should not be limited to gender roles.] And I am not good at pretending that I like people, so I really should get this tattoo.

There aren’t many revelations here, but DiSesa set out to write a business book that reads like a novel. She succeeded in that.

Queenpin, by Megan Abbott

Book 41

I saw Queenpin, by Megan Abbott at the library used book store right after utter_scoundrel blogged about another of her books.  Slim volume, so I gave it a try.
The first half was so cliché it made me angry.  Young girl cooking the books for some low budget operation is discovered by a serious player-chick who hires her and teaches her the underworld game.  And Rule #1 is don’t let a man screw it all up for you. 

Young girl gets a taste for it and gets good at it and then she meets the jerk.

I must say that the whole, “I knew from the moment I met him that I would do anything for him” routine turned me off in a big way.  She keeps her “relationship” a secret, so then we wait to find out when and how it is “discovered” or whether the boss knew it all along.  I didn’t care.

Then comes the day when the jerk presents his plan for her to get him a big score.  Here we go.  And it is all ugly and stupid.  But then, the story actually gets good.

Death of the Jerk just rocked.  And the last third of the book is watching the game unfold in the aftermath.  Does the mentor intend to throw the protégée to the wolves, or is she just buying insurance?  Will the protégée cut and run?  She is a bit of a crybaby.

The climax of the story is not unexpected, but very cinematic.  The “epilogue” is lame.  And there were still some unanswered questions that left me hanging.  But in the end, I enjoyed it.  Abbott’s novels do not require much of a commitment (What was I thinking in starting up another Mailer this year?) so I grabbed another.

The House on First Street, by Julia Reed

Book 40
I pulled out another New Orleans book because my friend Andrew just blogged a manifesto about the place, and it made me miss it. And this piece seemed a bit less hurricane-tragic than the others I have read:

The House of First Street: My New Orleans Story, by Julia Reed, is another New Orleans journalist’s account of life before and after Katrina. It doesn’t have near the emotional intensity of Heart Like Water or 1 Dead in Attic. (Although Reed seems to be a friend of Chris Rose, who wrote the latter.) In fact, Reed spends half the book complaining about the nightmare rehab job on her historic house in the Garden District – before the hurricane. While I found it all rather tedious, I ought to keep it in mind the next time I think that I would like to live in a Victorian that has some personality.
No kidding.
Where Clark and Rose wrote of heart-wrenching moments and broken relationships, Reed wrote about how food and booze kept every going. OK.  Where Rose (I think) wrote about randomly breaking down in tears one day at a gas station – which no one seemed to find odd – Reed wrote about gaining the “Katrina 15”. Clark wrote about staying in the city and desperately dodging the cops that were trying to clear the place out. Reed wrote about asking Newsweek for a press pass to get home, because she was afraid the one from Vogue wouldn’t quite impress that National Guard.
Reed knew that she sounded like Marie Antoinette in her dispatches to Vogue, because her editor told her so. She knows that she was very lucky, but I still feel like the story was less about New Orleans and more about her building a newlywed middle-aged life in a big house that happened to be in that city at that time.  I guess that’s fair enough – she does call it “My New Orleans Story”.  The epilogue was about how her house was robbed five days before the manuscript for the book was due and she hadn’t backed it up and had to write the whole thing over again.
She has a couple of interesting accounts.  One was the rumors about typhoid and the plague going around.  They were patently untrue, but kept many people from coming home.  Another was a description of a doctor friend of hers that set up camp in the French Quarter to help people because those in need couldn’t find the official free clinic that had been put together in the basement of a hotel.  He pulled it off because someone – I think it was one of the National Guard groups – gave him access to a pharmacy they had on lockdown.
Those brief pieces of the picture I didn’t have before were few and far between.  To sum it up, “A New Orleans story for readers of Vogue” probably isn’t too bad.

The Return of Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Book 39

The Return of Sherlock Holmes was one of the out-of-copyright freebie books on the Amazon Kindle.  I started reading it for two reasons.  First, I was on the road for two weeks in September and second, I remembered that reading Holmes cases was cool last year while I was in school because I could put it down for a whole week and not have a problem picking it back up.

The first interesting thing was that I hadn’t realized that “The Return” actually meant Returned from the Dead.  Poor Watson.  And you know what that jackass Holmes said – in explaining just why he hadn’t told his best friend that he was really alive?  That Watson wouldn’t have been convincing enough in his grief or whatever if he had known the truth.

So the first case was how Holmes drew out the remaining members of Moriarty’s gang.  Whatever. 

There were a couple of cases where Holmes let the culprit go free – in a which is the greater evil sort of way.   And it is always funny when there is a chick involved.  He calls Watson the expert in that area.  And that also reminded me of House MD.  I have read more than once that House was partially based on Holmes.  Genius jerk with a past drug habit and a most loyal sidekick.  Watson seems like a much less damaged guy than Wilson, though.

I like that the cases are less about big crime or big players – although they sometimes are – and more about whatever weird thing strikes the detective’s fancy.  Also true of House.  Maybe I should just go watch House now.  I have that James Earl Jones one sitting in the Tivo.

21 Dog Years: Doing Time at Amazon.com, by Mike Daisey

Book 38

Another book that I picked up while researching Amazon.com.  This was much less useful for a scholarly study.  And sometimes, it made me cringe.  Most memorable for my poor psyche was the last straw before Daisey quit his job:

Someone left a spreadsheet in the bathroom that had all of the salary information in his department.  He made copies and distributed it.

He talks about his work from customer service to business development as a big snow job that he pulled on the suits.  Which is kinda funny and kinda makes me insane.

I just figured it out: this book is like Office Space.  Where every member of my generation is going to find it funny except for me because I work in HR. 

There were some moments that even I found funny.  Like when his fiancee asked why he is always ripping on France; he told her that he had been doing it for so long that he doesn’t even remember. 

Apparently, Daisey is now doing one-man shows and writing books.  I bet that if I were listening to him telling his stories, rather than reading them while I am working my butt off to finish a graduate degree in management, I would beter appreciate it.  But even so, he makes a great point in this book: there is no way you will be able to do really good work at a job you can’t stand.  So follow your passion.  Or something.

Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.com Juggernaut, by James Marcus

Book 37

I picked up eight books from the library to research my final project and Amazonia, by James Marcus, was actually interesting. Marcus was Employee #55, hired by Jeff Bezos in 1996 to be an editor on Amazon.com. He reviewed books. Lots and lots of them.
The story is partly about the dot.com bubble-to-bust and partly a simple tale of the birth of a behemoth. Bezos, CEO and 1999 Time Magazine Person of the Year, is portrayed as a kind of mad scientist of statistics that is only interested in projects that he can “measure”.

Marcus talks about how Amazon was staffed with an editorial department filled with bookworms and writers, charged with writing what he calls the “haiku” of book reviews. The cool thing was that they were not told to make it all positive, so as to sell more books. They wrote what they thought. Over the five years that he worked there, editors were slowly replaced with customer reviews and auto recommendations. Finally, Marcus took his stock options and ran.

And speaking of those stock options..there is some mention of the ride of the “accidental millionaires”, cashing in the shares and buying new cars. Until one day it all crashed.

Of course, we all know that Amazon survived. And it seems that James Marcus grew up to be a real writer.