I, my friends, am branching out. This book is the autobiographical story of a young woman growing up in Iran in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Young Marjane begins her story during the Islamic Revolution in 1979 when she was ten years old and takes us through the next five years of her life. The cool part is that this book is written in the form of a black and white comic book. Yeah, that’s right, a black and white comic book. Aren’t I offbeat and eclectic?

So, in 1979, the Shah of Iran gets run out of the country and given asylum by Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt. Political prisoners were freed but the Cultural Revolution starts shortly thereafter and results in more deaths and imprisonment. During the Cultural Revolution all Iranian universities were shut down for two years to purge the system of “westernism” and smooth the way for the conversion to an Islamic state. Ayatollah Khomeini became the supreme leader of the country. Relations with the US deteriorated rapidly (the hostage crisis) and the war with Iraq began.

These events are played out in the view of a worldly pre-teen girl. I’m sure my recounting of the history has huge gaps because the exact retelling of what went on is not the point of the book. I think the point is that people inside Iran basically didn’t know what hit them. As these huge changes were happening, they had no idea if they were going to be better off or not. People were happy then they were sad. Long lost friends were back one day and gone abruptly shortly thereafter. It appeared a repressive regime was gone, but then the universities were shut down and strict rules on appearance and conduct began to be enforced by a crueler regime.

I could not imagine the turmoil. During that time I was in high school and really didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. I collected baseball cards, studied hard, played golf, and listened to Iron Maiden. Really, what else was there to do? I vaguely remember the hostage crisis and the 1980 US presidential election, but there wasn’t a lot of lively debate in my familial or social circle. However, I could recite the starting lineup of every major league baseball team…I’m talking every position of every team, except maybe the fourth and fifth pitchers in the rotation.

So since any sort of analysis of this Middle Eastern crisis passed me by during my formative years, I don’t have a good understanding of the politics and history of the Middle East, even though it’s in the news all of the time. I’ve always been curious about it but just not enough to really dig into it. I remember attempting to read Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem back in the early 1990’s, but I just couldn’t get through it. That it takes a comic book to really pique my interest in the subject is probably a sad commentary on my life. But the format does not detract from the keen insight that Marjane Satrapi provides.

Her family was rebellious. Her parents spoke out against the Shah vigorously. When the Shah fled and the new Khomeini regime came into power, they protested again. However, they stopped in short order because the punishment was much worse under the new regime. They still protested in private by drinking, dancing, and playing cards. But as the war with Iraq dragged on, the regime cracked down harder and harder on people who showed resistance. Rebellion came in different, more private ways.

Young Marjane rebelled by listening to Iron Maiden, which, as you know, is my favorite rock group of all time. So at the same time but half a world away, I was listening to the same music that this young Iranian woman was listening to. Their intelligent lyrics did not belie their thug-like appearance and this is proof that Iron Maiden spoke for more than just a group of middle class white kids in northwest Ohio.

Near the end of the book an Iraqi scud hits Marjane’s street in Tehran and her neighbor is killed. She knows this because she recognizes her neighbor’s arm in the rubble by the bracelet that she always wore. Her life changed after this and she becomes very rebellious. One day she smacks the principal and gets expelled from school. At her new school, Marjane argues with the religion teacher about martyrdom and executions. At this point, her parents come to the realization that this country is not good for their daughter. With her rebellious attitude they figure she will not make it out of her teen years. At age 14, they send Marjane to Austria to live with a friend and attend school. Marjane never expects to see her parents again and the book ends.

It’s a moving book and well worth the time. You can get through this 153 page comic book in less than two hours. I’m glad I spent the time. She has a sequel that starts where this book leaves off and I will read that soon.



Truman’s presidency occurred during times of immense global unrest and he was forced to make a few of the most pivotal decisions in US history. These decisions certainly affected the standing and prosperity of the US during his lifetime, but they also had reverberations that would affect the political and economic make-up of Asia and Europe for decades to come.

It’s been a while since I’ve listened to a book. But listening to this one really has me juiced for some more because it was really good. McCullough takes you through the expanse of Truman’s life, beginning with his humble beginnings on the Missouri countryside and detailing the significant events of his life through his death in 1972. Here is a quick timeline:

  • 1884-Born, Lamar, Missouri
  • 1914-Member of artillery brigade, World War I, mostly France
  • 1934-Elected to Senate (D, Missouri)
  • 1944-FDR re-elected to presidency with Truman as his VP
  • 1945-Truman becomes president upon FDR’s death (April)
  • 1945-Authorized use of the atomic bomb in Japan (August)
  • 1946-Threatened to take presidential control of the railroads and draft railway workers if they did not end their strike, effectively settling the strike but alienating labor
  • 1947-Develops Truman Doctrine (policy of containment) and appoints George Marshall as his secretary of state (who subsequently developed the Marshall Plan to assist in rebuilding Europe)
  • 1950-In second term as president, urged U.N. to intervene in Korea and authorized deployment of US troops to Korea under General MacArthur
  • 1951-Ceased aggression in Korea and fired MacArthur from his command in Korea and Japan
  • 1952-Lost New Hampshire primary and cancels re-election campaign
  • 1972-Dies the day after Christmas

These were the highlights in the abridged version I listened to. There was evidently not enough time to talk about the Berlin Airlift, Israel, civil rights, the Fair Deal, the Red Scare, or Vietnam.

I love McCullough’s delivery on the audio book version. He reads it like a grandfather telling a story. He doesn’t use much voice inflection but you can tell he cares deeply about the topic. It’s comforting to listen to his silvery voice and smooth delivery.

There were some chilling moments in Truman’s presidency. Shortly after dropping the bomb on Hiroshima, he said these words in his address to the nation.

…we are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city. We shall destroy their docks, their factories, and their communications. Let there be no mistake, we shall completely destroy Japan’s power to make war. If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a reign of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth.

That’s heavy stuff. Often McCullough would mix in real audio, but not for the above. I’m sure it’s on tape, I wonder if someone would not let him use it or if he thought it would be too horrifying to hear it from Truman himself. The book goes into a fairly lengthy discussion on the aftermath. There is some real audio after the second bomb on Nagasaki from Truman where he tells Japanese civilians to leave the cities because he was going to destroy everything in them. Sobering stuff.

Truman never went to college, but he was worldly, well read, and very grounded. I think this is why he was careful in selecting his advisers and why he deflected a lot of the credit for victories to others but took responsibility for failures. Perhaps his most famous appointment was making George Marshall the Secretary of State in 1947. Marshall engineered the aptly named Marshall Plan to assist in the post-war rebuilding of Europe and to help stop communist aggression. It has it’s detractors, but for the most part it is viewed by historians as an unmitigated success.

Truman’s most famous public brawl was with General MacArthur. MacArthur wanted to continue north of the 38th parallel in Korea because he did not feel that the Russians or Chinese would intervene on the North’s behalf. MacArthur said this in public, which was particularly discouraging to the Truman administration. Truman disagreed, and when Truman relieved him of duty there was a public outcry of massive proportions. MacArthur went on an unprecedented “victory” tour of the US when he got back from Korea and made speeches espousing his ideas for the war and where he thought Truman got it wrong. Truman basically ignored this and eventually the country came around to ignoring MacArthur also. Finally, MacArthur made his “old soldiers just fade away” speech and the public battle between the two giants of US history faded away also.

Truman ended up living out a his life after the presidency in a state of unending wonderment and joy. You may not agree with every decision that he made, but I would say he honored the office of the Presidency.


The Americanization of Ben Franklin

Before this book, I’ve always had a tainted view of Ben Franklin because of the existence of those Ben Franklin stores. I could never figure them out. Were they supposed to be like a Walgreens, a Wal-Mart, or a Dollar General? Or are they a combination of all three? Well, here is what the Ben Franklin website says about it. Nonetheless, if the store reflected the man, a Ben Franklin store would be more like a Marshall Fields…famous, unpretentious, and dead. No seriously, this was an excellent book and I’m happy that I have a deeper understanding of the man.

He was born in 1706 of humble means in Boston but became famous in Philadelphia. By the time he retired at age 42, he was one of the wealthiest men in America and on his way to becoming a world famous inventor, writer, philosopher, and politician. He died in 1790 and his death was mourned far more by France than the United States. This book walks the reader through Franklin’s life and relates his successes and failures to the tumultuous times of the New World and Early America. I’m going to organize my description in the same way the author organized the chapters. I’m doing so because I think a major strength of this book is the way Wood defines the sections of Franklin’s life in a coherent, easy-to-understand method.

Becoming a Gentleman (1706-1756)
In the early 1700s, you were either a gentleman or a commoner, there was no middle ground. That is, until Ben Franklin turned this situation upside down. Wood says about Franklin:

In effect, he began acquiring some of the attributes of a gentleman while still remaining one of the common working people. In 1727 he organized a group of artisans who met weekly for learned conversation – a printer, several clerks, a glazier, two surveyors, a shoemaker, a cabinetmaker, and subsequently “a young Gentleman of some Fortune,” named Robert Grace, who did not have to work for a living……It was this kind of aspiring and prosperous middling man that was beginning to challenge the hierarchical network of privilege and patronage that dominated eighteenth-century society, and in the process blurring the traditionally sharp social division between gentleman and commoners.

He was so successful in his printing business that he accumulated substantial wealth by his retirement in 1948. However, he did not become a full-fledged “gentleman” until about a decade later after spending many years “organizing clubs, starting libraries, promoting schools, leading the Masons, and becoming involved in dozens of activities that were well beyond the reach and consciousness of nearly all tradesman and artisans.”

Becoming a British Imperialist (1757-1764)
The start of this stage in his life found Franklin consumed with electricity. This interest manifested itself in a book about electricity that was published in America and Europe and solidified his fame worldwide. By the end of this stage he was on a mission to align the interests of America and Great Britain. He loved London and believed that America and Great Britain could coexist and even thrive. Wood quotes Franklin and says that Franklin desired that

…the people of Great Britain and the people of the colonies “learn to consider themselves, not as belonging to different Communities with different Interests, but to one Community with one Interest.”

Wood does not sugarcoat the life of Franklin. It was during this period that Franklin acquired slaves and grew more distant from his wife Deborah. In 1764 he left for an extended stay in London and never saw his wife again, and he didn’t seem to care much about that.

Becoming a Patriot (1765-1774)
Franklin spent about a decade in London trying to get Great Britain and the colonies to get along. By this time, Great Britain was well into the mode of taxation without representation. He brawled with Parliament about the Stamp Act, a tax basically on “nearly every form of paper used in the colonies.” In front of Parliament “he made it clear as possible that Parliament had no right to lay a stamp tax on the colonists, and his pointed responses probably saved his reputation in America.”

Try as he might, through nasty politics on both sides of the ocean, conciliation between Great Britain and the colonies was not meant to be. Franklin eventually started to feel disfavor towards Great Britain and when he sailed for America in early 1775, he was described as “a passionate patriot, more passionate in fact than nearly all the other [American] patriot leaders.”

Becoming a Diplomat (1775-1784)
When Franklin got back to America the fighting had already started. Franklin’s main role in the Revolutionary War was to “seek foreign support for the war.” He went to France, achieved several diplomatic successes, and fell in love with the country (a feeling felt mutually by the French towards Franklin). Wood says,

Not only did Franklin hold the Franco-American alliance together, but he also oversaw the initial stages of the successful peace negotiations with Britain. And he did this all with a multitude of demands placed on him.

This, by a man in his 70s, in a time when people did not live as long as they do now. Wood concludes this section by making a big proclamation,

If Washington was indispensable to the success of the Revolution in America, Franklin was indispensable to the success of the Revolution abroad.

Becoming an American (1785-1790)
As Franklin’s life winds down, Wood brings the book to a rousing conclusion. Immediately before his death, Franklin made an effort to abolish slavery. It was rejected by America but Wood attributes the eventual abolishment of it partly to Franklin.

Virginia and the South always claimed that they had remained closer to the eighteenth-century beginnings of the nation, and they were right. It was the North that had changed and changed dramatically. Because northern Americans came to celebrate work so emphatically – with Franklin as their most representative figure – the leisured slaveholding aristocracy of Virginia and the rest of the South became a bewildered and beleaguered minority out of touch with the enterprise and egalitarianism that had come to dominate the country. As long as work had been held in contempt, as it had for millennia, slavery could never have been wholeheartedly condemned. But to a society that came to honor work as fully as the North did, a leisured aristocracy and the institution of slavery that supported it had to become abominations.

Wow, that is quite a tribute to Franklin. I am going to have to toss it around a little before I buy off on it though.

Great book.



This book starts with a speech by King George made around September 1775 (once again, I listened to it, so it’s tough to flip back and check facts, but I will give you the gist) . Effectively, King George questioned the sanity of a bunch rebels campaigning for freedom when they had it so good. I mean, how could you not like being under the thumb of one of wealthiest and most powerful nations on the face of the earth? The rebels, he figured, would soon understand how good they had it and basically surrender. He did not go as far as to say that his troops would be “greeted as liberators,” but he definitely called out the resolve of the rebels.

The first part of the book centers on the effective blockade of Boston by George Washington’s army. The blockade started in the middle of 1775 and as it dragged into winter, commander-in-chief George Washington started to get impatient. He continually pushed for a frontal attack on Boston but the war council decided it was not the best idea. After all, the city would probably burn and the loss of human life would be huge. Then, in early 1776, copies of King George’s speech circulated among the rebels and ended up being great bulletin board material, which started to fire up the rebels to kick some redcoat ass.

Also at this point (early January), General Knox arrived with guns from Fort Ticonderoga. This set into motion the incredible occupation of Dorchester Heights (overlooking Boston) by the rebels. With the rebels on Dorchester Heights, the British had little chance of surviving a frontal attack, so they piled into their boats and left town.

As expected, the British headed for New York City, but Washington and his men were there first. It was different from Boston though because the advantage was on the side of the British. Mostly because the British brought in reinforcements, including the Hessians. Also, the British commanded the sea, with most of their fleet set up in the waters around New York.

A strategic stalemate lasted well into the summer of 1776, until August, when the British began coming ashore on Long Island. Washington and his men crossed the river and occupied Brooklyn in effort to keep the British out of New York. This did not last long and Washington and his crew slipped back to New York and eventually retreated back to Philadelphia. Now, with the British in control of New York City and numbers on the British side, things were looking pretty bleak for the rebels. They were holed up in Philly, with a pack of Hessian soldiers on the other side of the river, and on the brink of losing thousands of soldiers when their commissions were up in the fall.

But, the rebels had a few things going for them. First, the British made some poor battleground decisions. They should have been more aggressive on Long Island and crushed the rebels before they had a chance to retreat. And effectively calling a unilateral halt to fighting on the onset of winter in December 1776 was just downright stupid. But most importantly, one George Washington led the rebels, and he was a pretty gutsy guy. Washington made a rousing speech to convince many soldiers to extend their commission and planned one of the most audacious offensives in the history of the fightin’ man.

On Christmas Day, 1776, Washington marched his men to the Delaware River during a nasty rain/sleet/snowstorm. They hopped into flat bottom boats and negotiated the river despite the brutal cold, the dark of night, the wicked wind, and the jagged chunks of ice floating in the river. Once over the river, they walked through the night, and by the next morning they were queued up about a half-mile outside of Trenton, New Jersey, which was occupied by a few thousand Hessians. In the driving storm, they attacked with overwhelming force and took Trenton in less than an hour. The victory was so lopsided that the rebels did not even have a casualty of war. The only rebel deaths were two men that died from the cold during the walk over.

Trenton and the night crossing of the Delaware was the turning point of the war. This ended the year of 1776 but the war went on. Around 25,000 Americans would end up dying before the fighting ended and I think it would be like the early 1780’s before the British actually called it quits. I don’t want to blow it out of proportion, but one could make a case that our freedom today would not be if Washington did not choose to pursue that offensive during the holiday season of 1776. How appropriate as a lead-in to this holiday season. I may just have to reflect a little on this and I will definitely consume more David McCullough books.


Devil in the White City

I love Chicago. I just can’t imagine living anyplace else actually. I love the lake, the downtown, the size, the options for entertainment (including golf), the change of seasons…just about everything about it. It’s just a great, all-around city and one person that I have to thank is the world famous architect and city planner Daniel Burnham. If you read (or listen to) the Devil in the White City, you will understand why.

It is the story of a period in Chicago that runs from about 1890 to 1895. The backdrop is provided by the Columbian Exposition, which took place in Jackson Park from May to October in 1893. The story revolves around two men, Burnham, the leader of the Exposition, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who thrived in the Englewood neighborhood at the time of the Exposition.

Let’s talk about Burnham first. The dude was friggin’ intense. All Chicagoans – no, let me rephrase – all Americans should be thankful that he poured himself into architecture and city planning. The Columbian Exposition, while fraught with tragedy, certainly achieved great things. It put Chicago on the map and started the city on a path to greatness, it provided the impetus for countless innovations and social movements, and it entertained and educated the world. Plus, it made money, despite the fact the country was mired in a recession at the time. After reading this book, it’s not surprising that Burnham coined the phrase, “Make no small plans.”

As a Chicagoan (albeit transplanted), I am embarrassed that it took me this long to get through this book. So many important things happened in the time period that this book covers that I think it is a must read for anyone interested in the history of Chicago. Burnham, Sullivan, Adler, Root, the Rookery, Englewood, Jackson Park, Lake Michigan, the Windy City…it’s all there. Great stuff.

However, for all of the greatness exhibited by Burnham et al; there was pure, abject evil, to a level even more extreme, exhibited right down the street from Burnham. This H.H. Holmes guy was a sick, sinister mother #$%@*^ and makes Gacy look like a candy-ass. Enough said, its actually uncomfortable talking about it.

This is like two distinct books. One part feels like a history book and the other part feels like a James Patterson novel. Either way, it is a lot of good stuff and if you are a Chicagoan, you do yourself a grave injustice if you don’t give it a whirl.


Guns, Germs, and Steel

At one point in his life, Jared Diamond was a biologist in New Guinea studying birds. This was about the early 70’s, I think. (With audio books it’s difficult to verify the details because you can’t just leaf through the pages or refer to the index, so I apologize if I get the details wrong.) Okay, it was the early 70’s and he was having a conversation with this local politician in New Guinea, named Yali. Yali asked a question of Diamond that went something like this, why do you people (white, Euro-types) have all of this advanced technology and we don’t? What is the cause of this disparity? Well, Diamond sets out to explain the answer.

Diamond begins by walking you through the evolution of people, beginning at about 7 million BC. He gets you to about 11,000 BC before he really starts making comparisons between different peoples and continents. He concentrates first on the rise of food producing societies and their subsequent displacement of people engaged solely in hunting and gathering. This domestication of plants and animals for food allows a society to progress much faster because members can spend less time looking for food and more time reading, writing, studying, and creating complex, hierarchical political systems.

Once he establishes the import of domesticating plants and animals, he explains how the east-west orientation of Eurasia was much more amenable to rapid adoption of farming across the continent than the north-south orientation of Africa and the Americas. He illustrates this by pointing out, for example, that it took much longer for corn to find its way from Mexico to the United States than it did for certain cereals from the Fertile Crescent to spread much longer distances across Eurasia.

He concludes:

That faster spread of Eurasian agriculture, compared with that of Native American and sub-Saharan African agriculture, played a roll, as the next part of this book will show, in the more rapid diffusion of Eurasian writing, metallurgy, technology, and empires. To bring up all those differences isn’t to claim that widely distributed crops are admirable or that they testify to the superior ingenuity of early Eurasian farmers. They reflect instead the orientation of Eurasia’s axis compared with that of the Americas or Africa; around those axes turned the fortunes of history.

With only about two hours left, I expected the pace to pick up a bit if he was going to bring me back around to answering Yali’s question. And it does.

His next topic is germs, which also helped domesticated, well-organized, Eurasian societies to displace others. Germs, you see, thrive in domesticated animals like cattle and sheep. Eurasian societies lived near, and sometimes with, these animals for years. After numerous plagues, they developed resistance to many of the diseases in these animals. So, when Spanish conquistadors landed on the shores of Mexico and effectively destroyed a society of millions of Aztecs, it was less so the fierceness and intelligence with which the Spanish fought and more so the fact that the Aztecs were not resistant to the smallpox that the Spanish brought with them.

He goes through the details of three more topics and explains how they affected the rise and fall of different societies. They are, in order of presentation:

  1. The advent and cultivation of writing
  2. The rise of technology
  3. The development of complex political systems

It was really some fascinating audio. He made a complicated, controversial, and potentially boring topic very captivating. I turned it off feeling that I know more about the world. The last chapter in the audio book is 8 minutes and 35 seconds worth of summary that really ties it all together.

Here is how he sums it up:

The striking differences between the long-term histories of peoples of the different continents have been due not to innate differences in the people themselves, but to differences in their environments.

The most important differences in the environments, per Diamond, are as follows:

  1. The differences in starting material for domestication of plants and animals.
  2. The differences in rates of diffusion of certain developments across societies within continents.
  3. Inter-hemispheric diffusion of certain developments.
  4. Continental differences in area and population size.

Great stuff. Read it or listen to it and you will get more detail than you can consume on how each of the four differences resulted in widely disparate societies.


The Devil’s Teeth

There’s a cluster of islands in the Pacific, only about 30 miles from San Francisco, that happens to be an annual gathering place for great white sharks. This rocky outcrop of islands is called the Farallones, and if you want to study sharks, these islands have no equal. There isn’t another place on the globe where you can see so many sharks in their natural habitat.

Now, there are a few curveballs for the average shark watcher. First, the sharks only show up from about September through November. Second, access to the islands is severely restricted by the government. And finally, it’s a particularly inhospitable place beset with nasty weather and a cliff-like shoreline that makes getting on the islands from a boat very difficult.

However, this did not stop Susan Casey from becoming obsessed with the Farallones. She was sitting at home one night and caught a BBC special about the two scientists that were performing groundbreaking shark research on the islands. She was hooked immediately and began scheming to get to the Farallones to be close to these awesome creatures.

Let me tell you a little about Susan Casey. She’s a writer, lives in Manhattan, and spent much of her life as a competitive swimmer. She likes REI outdoor gear, Gucci heels, and Patagonia capilene underwear – size small. Hey, that’s what she said.

She starts out getting a one day pass to the islands. She likes it so much that she pushes and finagles a couple of longer stays on the islands. She befriends Peter and Scott, the ultra-cool scientists that are superstars in the shark world, who willingly assist her in her efforts to spend even more time near the sharks of the Farallones. After the government steps in to mediate a nasty feud between the researchers and some tour operators, access to the islands gets even more restrictive. But the scientists and Susan concoct a plan to stay on a borrowed yacht off the coast of the Farallones since she is expressly forbidden from setting foot on the islands. Ah, not a good idea. It’s about this time that Casey ceases to be the athletic, attractive, writer-adventurer and turns into a whiny outsider that really starts who may start to grate on your nerves.

So yes, I eventually became disinterested in the trials and travails of Susan Casey. But, there’s still a lot of great stuff in this book. The shark lore and history of the islands is fascinating. These creatures, especially the great whites, captivated me throughout. Casey does a great job of vividly describing the people and scenery, and these descriptions give this story some heart and soul.


Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Whoa, this five hour plus audio book absolutely consumed me during a 48 hour period from noon on Feb 9 to noon on Feb 11. Anytime I could squeeze in a little car time or iPod time, I did so. Everything was about my main man Aron Ralston.

I’m sure you’ve heard the story. Man goes canyoneering alone in Utah. Man gets arm stuck under rock. Man had not told anybody where he was going. Man was immobile for 5 days and nearly dies of dehydration. Man breaks ulna and radius and frees himself by cutting through soft tissue of forearm. Man gets home safely and has interview with Tom Brokaw.

This is an amazing story. It works well as an audio book because it’s Ralston himself doing the reading. It’s equal parts re-enactment, memoir, and narration. He starts the book re-enacting his mountain bike trip to the trailhead before his hike into the Utah canyons near Moab. At certain points he breaks from the re-enactment and recalls parts of his life story or adds some detail that explains how he got to this point. Then, in the second half of the book, he narrates the story of his friends and family organizing his rescue. The story bounces back and forth between these perspectives and it never ceased to hold my rapt attention.

During the re-enactment, not only does he explain what he did for just about every minute of his ordeal, but he delves deeply into the thoughts and reflections he had during this time. It’s a little strange that he recalls this level of detail and that his thoughts were so rational and organized. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising though. He is extremely intelligent. He took pictures and video with his free hand, which I am sure he used to jog his memory. Additionally, he is passionate about his outdoor pursuits and very introspective. Therefore, I choose to believe every last detail of the story. Not just because I trust the guy, but also because this story got huge media coverage. We know how the media likes to tear down our heroes (and rightfully so), so we would know by now if these were lies. Man, am I being a little guarded or what after this James Frey vs Oprah ordeal?

I could not stop listening. Usually I only listen to audio books in my car during my commute. But this one flowed over into the weekend and I listened as I worked out and did laundry. Maybe I was so involved because I feel like I have a connection with Ralston. I too once fancied myself an outdoor athlete. Of course, I was a little more fancy and a little less athlete, but I still had a Camelback hydration system like Ralston. Those days have come and gone and I have since sold the Camelback, the waterproof tent, and the sleeping bag rated for subzero temps. However, I still read Backpacker magazine occasionally and I harbor dreams of hiking the Appalachian trail with my wife when we retire (at least parts of it…if there’s a JW Marriott near the trail for my wife…so she can go to the spa).

Ralston is a pretty cool guy. He loves mountain climbing, margaritas, and rock and roll. At age 27, he quit his job at Intel as an engineer and became a mountain guide. He just followed his true calling and it appears to have worked out well for him. It seems like he is well grounded, has a loving family, and has many great friends. He has a good sense of humor also. At one point, while he is contemplating cutting his arm off, he says something like, “hacking off a limb, like living east of the Rocky Mountains, is something I never thought I would do.”

Even if you don’t have an outdoorsy bone in your body, you will love this book. It’s an un-freaking-believable story of survival and perseverance.



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.