Monthly Archives: January 2006

A Conspiracy of Paper

I’ve had David Liss on my reading list for a long time. I’m not sure how I heard about him. I think maybe there was a write-up in the Chicago Tribune book section, or maybe even Newsweek. Who knows, but I finally pulled the trigger. This came with a lot of deliberation, but it was a New York Times Notable Book so I wasn’t taking that big of a risk.

I’ve always been a big fan of the mystery/thriller genre but I am pretty selective and fiercely loyal to authors like Tony Hillerman, Dick Francis, and Sue Grafton. I need to be comfortable that I’m not wasting my time and once I settle on a “brand,” so to speak, I don’t really deviate. I own just about every Hillerman in hardcover and I have never been disappointed with any of his books. With Hillerman, I know I’m going to get deep and interesting characters, a keen insight into a different culture or time period, and an intricate, challenging, yet understandable plotline. I think the same goes for Francis and Grafton. Let me say right now, David Liss did not disappoint.

The main character is Benjamin Weaver, a Jewish thief-taker (private detective basically) in London – year 1719. Weaver is a former champion boxer who now lives comfortably in London chasing down criminals in a discrete and professional manner. He has led a rough life and spent most of it estranged from his family and his overbearing, cruel father.

The story begins shortly after his father is killed in the streets of London by an out of control carriage driver. It is deemed an accident by the relevant authorities and Weaver shows little remorse given his rocky relationship with his father. However, certain instances give rise to doubts about the nature of his father’s death and Weaver’s interest gets piqued enough such that he begins to investigate.

I’m not giving anything away, this all happens within the first 20 pages.

His investigation sets off a series of events in London that brings Weaver in contact with corrupt corporations, seedy street criminals, a prolific mob boss, the beautiful widow of his dead cousin, and an enemy from Weaver’s childhood that may be an ally. The most colorful character of the bunch is his buddy, Elias, who happens to be a doctor, aspiring playwright, drunken playboy, and part-time philosopher. The novel is set in a very anti-Semitic, early 18th century London, a city that during this time was leading the world in the conversion from gold to paper as a medium of finance. Most of the action takes place in and around the exchanges and the London financial markets.

Liss was a doctoral candidate at Columbia University and wrote his thesis on “the ways in which eighteenth century Britons imagined themselves through their money” (Historical Note, page 438). So as you can imagine, he mixes in some real characters with his fictional characters and attempts to capture the cultural and political atmosphere of the time. This historical backing does not impinge at all on the intrigue and violence of the story. It is a great mystery with plot twists throughout.

Finally, not only is it a great mystery, but it also has a great main character in Benjamin Weaver. It is told from his perspective. He is a tough yet reflective gentleman. He wrestles with the demons of his childhood, the British class structure, anti-Semitism, and his own insecurity. He questions the moral implications of his actions and second-guesses his methods of investigation. He is not infallible but certainly resolute once he sets his mind to something. This was a great read and I look forward to reading the other two books, which continue the adventures of Weaver.

Blink

The trend of nonfiction continues. I have not read or listened to much fiction lately but there is some on the agenda immediately following this book. My wife bought Blink but I rudely grabbed it before she got to read it (I’m dealing with the guilt, thanks for asking). I was in a hurry to read it because I had just finished The Tipping Point by Gladwell and I liked it, so I thought it would be good to follow up quickly with his other book.

Gladwell sets out to explain that “there can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis” (page 17). He is not advocating hasty decisions and he is not tearing down long, arduous, analytical thought. In general, he is just working this “blink of an eye” angle in an effort to teach us how to manage and use our first impressions despite the general perception that they usually lead to less than desirable outcomes.

Who doesn’t agree that first impressions can be dangerous? It kind of goes along with what mom and dad always warned, “you only get one chance to make a first impression.” But, then they would say something like “don’t judge a book by its cover.” How confusing is that? On one hand they advocate looking beneath the surface to uncover true character in others, but when you dye your hair purple before your first job interview, they overrule your personal grooming decisions. “But mom, once they talk to me and understand how smart, caring, and responsible I am, won’t they look past my purple hair and still hire me?” Uh, NO. Mom and dad were smarter than you thought but they just did not have all the data that Gladwell has to convince you that first impressions are both harmful and helpful and that we need to understand more about how our mind works before we can assess whether to listen to our gut or not .

Gladwell digs heavily into a concept he calls “thin-slicing,” or, as he describes it, “the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience” (page 23). There are times, in certain situations, given the right environment, where you can immediately hone in the relevant information and make a sound decision almost instantaneously. This can be an extremely powerful, life saving, and productivity-increasing talent. But, you have to understand when the circumstances lend themselves to this because if they don’t, you are going to do something stupid.

To illustrate what I think he is saying, let me give you an example from my own life. I am passionate about the game of golf. I participate in it, read about it, watch it, discuss it, surf the net for information on it, dream about it, love it, hate it, and am generally consumed by it. This is not necessarily something to be proud of, but it’s true. Ask my friends. Okay, now, I can drive by a golf course, glance at it, and almost immediately discern if it is an excellent course (4 out of 5 stars) or a great course (3.5 out of 5 stars). Furthermore, based on a few snippets of text on the internet I can tell if my group will enjoy playing a golf course that we have never even seen before. When it comes to rating a golf course using standards agreed on by pretty much anybody, I can “thin-slice” with the best of them. Why? Well, because it’s within my “area of passion and experience” as Gladwell puts it. So I can be confident in my abilities to use my first impressions in this matter, be they gleaned from a small sample of text or a split-second observation.

The same cannot be said about my ability to “thin-slice” fine wines. I will falter under the pressure of the waiter hovering over my shoulder while I look at a wine list. If it’s red and has a picture of a horse on it, I’m probably going to like it. So if I do the tasting, there is a good chance that I may choose a poor vintage because of bad weather or something. Or maybe I’ll pick a red wine that has too much oak flavor for the delicate fish that my party has ordered. I don’t even know what I’m talking about. I certainly don’t have the palate to tell the waiter to take it back and bring me the 1998 coastal cabernet after that little pour that they do at expensive restaurants. There’s a good chance I’m going to ruin the meal and thereby set the tone for a horrible evening. This could be “thin-slicing” gone bad and I need to recognize that so I can decline the tasting, and let someone more knowledgeable make the call.

These examples are trivial, so please read the book because I am sure I do not do Gladwell justice. He has some very thought provoking examples of how first impressions are harmful in the real world, especially regarding race, gender, and age. He backs the examples up with detailed statistical analyses that read like an econ book. He was touched by a negative experience with first impressions in his own life (see the Acknowledgements) and that set him on the path to writing this book. It is a call to arms for people to say, I don’t know because I have never walked in those shoes so I will attempt to understand my bias and analyze the issue before I act.

But he does not focus only on the harm caused by quick decisions. He has plenty of examples of highly successful snap decisions and this can be educational if you are interested in reading this book to improve your decision-making. I keep seeing this book in the business section but in my opinion it isn’t a business book, per se. I guess there are applications of many of his theories in the areas of management and marketing, but if you’re looking for a how-to on making quick business decisions this book is not the right one for the job. If anything, it proves that there is no universal formula you can adhere to for quick decisions. But if you are an expert, thoroughly trained in the subject, and you build this huge reservoir of experience that results in an intuitive grasp of certain situations, then you probably have the ability to make very important decisions with just a two-second observation. Who knows, if you have achieved this level of expertise, maybe this ability could save someone’s life someday, so be ready to trust yourself.

Big Russ and Me

This is, for the most part, an autobiography of Tim Russert of NBC’s Meet the Press. It is more than just a retelling of his life though because it focuses a lot on his father’s life story and how his father has affected his own life (the subtitle is “Father and Son: Lessons of Life”).

I have only recently become a Tim Russert fan. I never get to watch Meet the Press because my Sunday mornings are usually filled with golf, worship, or both. But with the purchase of an iPod and the adoption of iTunes as the main focus of my digital life, I am now in complete control of my intake of news and entertainment in audio format. I religiously download the Meet the Press podcast every Sunday afternoon and usually listen to it on the treadmill or elliptical trainer on Monday or Tuesday.

On Meet the Press, the guy just asks tough questions – of everybody. I don”t sense any bias. I feel like the guy is trying to get answers, that’s it. I was mildly surprised to learn during the book that he admired the Kennedy family (John and Bobby), was DP Moynihan’s chief of staff, and protested Vietnam at John Carroll University in Cleveland. The only time his personal views come through on Meet the Press is when he is talking about his two favorite sports teams, the Buffalo Bills and New York Yankees. He is more than worthy of being my top source of political news and analysis and Meet the Press will always be 45 minutes of time that is never, ever wasted. So I bought the (audio)book and listened during my commute.

His roots are in Buffalo, NY. South Buffalo to be exact. He grew up the son of a garbage man in a working class, Irish Catholic family. He relates his life experiences with plain talk and a humbleness that I think is genuine. Even though he is one of the most powerful newsmen on the face of the earth, if I met him in an airport I could see us talking about football and baseball for hours. That is just how he comes across. He seems approachable and thoughtful.

I found it easy to identify with his childhood. He describes in great detail two items that really hit close to home for me. First, he attended many sporting events with his dad, especially in Cleveland, OH. Like Russert, I vividly remember the whole process of my dad preparing the vehicle with sandwiches, snacks, pop, beer, lawn chairs, umbrellas, etc…for the trip to St. John’s Arena (Buckeye hoops) or Municipal Stadium (Indians baseball). I was going to Cleveland because I loved the Tribe, but Russert was coming from the other direction to see his beloved Yankees playing in the closest park to Buffalo. Recalling the atmosphere of a bunch of guys sitting in a car for a trip to the game, talking about sports for hours while shoveling finger food into their mouths, is as special for me as it is for Russert.

Second, the Russerts love to eat and he told stories about how much they appreciated food for more than just fuel. Now granted, one member of my family diverges from the Russerts a little in this instance because my dad is not a big fan of food like Big Russ is, but the rest of my family sees food as the Russerts. We definitely are NOT food snobs, or foodies as they are called, but we have a keen appreciation for all sorts of culinary delights. Making a decision on something as simple as where to order pizza resulted in deep analytical thought and plenty of debate in our household. I am just glad that we were not the only family where the main topic of conversation while eating one meal was the plan for the next meal. Here’s to you Big Russ.

Russert has had an interesting life. The cool thing is that with all of his rich experiences, I didn’t detect even a hint of arrogance. I also think he treats the rich and famous the same way that he treats his buddies. His stories about playing jokes on Al Gore or George Bush sound like the stories my dad tells about playing jokes on business colleagues or friends. It is devoid of pretentiousness, which makes the audio book very easy to listen to.

This is maybe the third or fourth audio book that I have purchased and until now, I was NOT sold on the medium. Books are meant to be read…It’s an art form and you denigrate it by listening to someone else read it to you…blah, blah, blah. Whatever…I’m an idiot. Audio books are the way to go if you want to increase your volume and they are a must for commuters. My theory is that one should listen to non-fiction only, preferably read by the author. At some points, I was actually happy to get stuck in traffic so that I could get through more of this book.

It gets a strong recommendation from me.