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A Voice in the Wilderness

As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there's a twilight where everything remains seemingly unchanged, and it is in such twilight that we must be aware of change in the air, however slight, lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness. -- William O. Douglas

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Three Feet from Gold; by Lechter & Reid - my review

Sharon Lechter and Greg Reid put together this allegory injecting it with advice for success. After interviewing a variety of high achievers, they created a story about a struggling, marketing wannabe. The young man's initial motivations and offensive actions metamorphose into a way of thinking, based in morality and shored up with exhortations from the elites that bring about significant changes in his life.

"Three Feet from Gold," is a feel-good remake of the book, "Think and Grow Rich" originally conceived by Napoleon Hill back at the turn of the century. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the book's initial publication in 1908, the Napoleon Hill Foundation commissioned, "Three Feet from Gold" in an effort to resurrect some old ideas using contemporary personalities. Like Hill, Lechter & Reid collected sage advice from high achieving contemporaries which they used as the basis for their pared-down rendition of "Think and Grow Rich."

Aside from its schmaltzy tone, it did offer some decent recommendations for success. Unfortunately, the story seems disingenuous and therefore, the advice loses impact. The problem has to do with a selfish young man whose personal attributes and bad behavior do little to create a sympathetic character. He is so seriously flawed that his capacity for change is dubious.

The storyline recounted how this selfish marketing executive's baneful life
was turned around after he has a chance encounter with an affable, wise entrepreneur.

The story became even more unbelievable when it suggested that successful business people might inclined to show up-and-comers the keys to success. Like Napolean Hill who received his imprimatur from the business magnate, Andrew Carnegie, Greg received his pass from the wealthy entrepreneur whose jacket he returned.
Greg's misperceived act of kindness is rewarded and he receives the old man's authorization to tap into the collective wisdom of his successful cronies.

It seems doubtful that any of the business tycoon would ever just allow someone so ethically compromised as the protagonist in this story to ever get close to them - especially considering that their core values are rooted in morality. To my recollection, one of their jewels of wisdom was the admonition to avoid any prolonged contact with negative personalities because because such people tend to be a drain on energy not to mention they present a negative contagion which promotes failure.

As an aside, the 'star chamber' scene about midway through the story was way over-the-top - and thus unconvincing if not just plain bulls@%t.

I evaluated this book on two levels; content and delivery.

The content was decent but, there wasn't anything revolutionary in the book. Compared to other guidebooks on success, this one followed the same pattern of the genre. This story's shortcoming was in its delivery - again, I believe it is because - the main character was unlikeable.

For me, the guy represented everything wrong with business today. The protagonist embodied all the negative stereotypical characteristics of the fools who recently plunged the entire world's economy into a recession. They may be brilliant and but they abused their talent.

I failed to see the value in promoting self-serving 'me-first' types as the kind of people deserving a hand-up from America's business elites. It may have had more appeal if the rich, old man had reached out to a working stiff who had personal integrity and a solid work ethic but simply lacked the connections and opportunity to move forward - a Horatio Alger type.

This book only glanced upon the value of contributing back to society.

My impression is there are a whole bunch of bull-shi##ers in business who are making a pile of cash simply doing nothing and it dismays me to witness such mentality tacitly accepted in this book. My observations from the news and in reading this book confirm my belief that we are living in a charlatan's guilded age where one actual piece of advice is "fake it 'til you make it' speaks volumes about the flawed personalities who take it upon themselves to be the mouthpiece for success in America these days.

It is no wonder we have obsessive personalities whose drive for success at all costs encourages pathological ambitions that serves personal interests at such a great cost to the worlds in which they move. Moreover, I remain convinced this book is reflective or a greater malaise in America today. It is rooted in the entire selection process and the criteria we - as a society - use to determine what kind of person is likely to succeed.

I do not claim to have any answers however, lots of zeroes in the bank account or having a title such as MBA or MD or JD is just part of the formula of success. The obsession with acquisitiveness has become the focal point for determining success. Until that changes, we are going to see pillaging by way of million-dollar bonuses as occurred in AIG, Lehman Brothers and Bank of America, or shysters like Bernie Madoff. It is all connected and it reflects something seriously wrong in the way we select for people to fill positions of prestige and responsibility.

Something is really wrong when deception is part of the prescribed paradigm. Ostensibly, the underlying rationalization is that it calls forth some cosmic power from the universe. I am willing to concede that there is a phenomenon in the universe which defies rational explanation - and maybe that makes me nuts but, I think that we still have not figured out a way to explain it rationally - my difficulty with this book is that it may well offer some practical advice but it fails in cultivating any sense of social responsibility. Philanthropy is mentioned at many points throughout the book but it echoes hollow since it really doesn't describe what motivates such powerful people to be philanthropic or how doing so can have any pay-off considering that their hoarding behavior is the number one goal in life.

"Three Feet from Gold" was a commendable effort for Lechter & Reid but, it didn't work for me. The requisite ethical component as a necessary determinant for success in life was barely touched upon and lacked any meaningful depth.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

I'm Your Man - Leonard Cohen

I'm Your Man
by Leonard Cohen

If you want a lover
I'll do anything you ask me to
and - if you want another kind of love
I'll wear a mask for you
If you want a partner
Take my hand
or - if you want to strike me down in anger
Here I stand -
I'm your man

If you want a boxer
I will step into the ring for you
and - if you want a doctor
I'll examine every inch of you
If you want a driver
Climb inside
or - if you want to take me for a ride
You know you can -
I'm your man

ah, the moons too bright
The chains too tight
The beast won't go to sleep
I've been running through these promises to you
That I made and I could not keep

ah, but a man never got a woman back

Not by begging on his knees
or - I'd crawl to you baby
and - I'd fall at your feet
and - I'd howl at your beauty
Like a dog in heat
and - I'd claw at your heart
and - I'd tear at your sheet
I'd say please, please -
I'm your man

and - if you've got to sleep
A moment on the road
I will steer for you
and - if you want to work the street alone
I'll disappear for you
If you want a father for your child
or - only want to walk with me a while
Across the sand -
I'm your man

If you want a lover
I'll do anything you that ask me to
and - if you want another kind of love
I'll wear a mask for you

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Living a Life that Matters; by Harold Kushner - my review

Living a Life that Matters uses the story of Jacob in The Book of Genesis as the background for discussion regarding why and how a person should live a life that matters.

Harold Kushner
is a Rabbi so his logic carries a spiritual component. However, his writing is devoid of self righteousness. Using stories and references to popular culture he argues that integrity defines character. He tempers his words with sensitivity and understanding to explain that personal development is an ongoing process that involves commitment and courage to change.

His reflections on religious fanaticism and the perspectives of fundamentalists at the end of the book are thought provoking. He points out the patterns of collective behavior relative to age.

He wrote,

"Remember that Islam is less that 1,400 years old. When Judaism was 1,200 years old, it was converting the inhabitants of captured territories by force. When Christianity was 1,200 to 1,400 years old, it was graduating from the blood shed of the Crusades to the tortures of the Inquisition. It may be that a world religion has to go through an "adolescent" phase of believing that it has total truth (plausibly, as in so many adolescents, a cover for insecurity; why else would a world wide religious organization be so panicked at the thought of a roomful of heretics somewhere in its domain?) before it matters.

It is an aspect of terrorism and the Jihadist mentality that I never gave much thought to. It makes sense.

I adhere to the belief that knowledge is power. Rabbi Kushner's insight reinforces my conviction that violence rarely settles an issue once and for all. Perhaps it is time we reach out to Islam in tangible ways by reverting swords into plowshares and vitriol into dialogue. I find it impossible to believe that all Muslims are violent extremists.

There have to be more settled minds among the Islamic faithful whose spirituality is not shored up by willingness to resort to violence and terror. We need to be seeking out those religious leaders who have enough conviction in their religion that they are not obsessed with forced conversion. Such leaders won't be shaken when their core principles are subjected to scrutiny and they are less apt to resort to violence when their beliefs are challenged.

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Year of Magical Thinking - by Joan Didion - my review

The definition of "Magical thinking is a clinical term used to describe a wide variety of nonscientific and sometimes irrational beliefs. These beliefs are generally centered on correlations between events."

Joan Didion's choice for this book's title is appropriate in that it reflects her mindset as she recounts her experience of year following her husband's death. The book is filled with numerous details surrounding the event itself and so many associations arising from it. Her chronicle is delivered in a dream-like stream of consciousness style of writing that convincingly evokes her sense of loss, her state of loss and her need to maintain some semblance of connection to the man with whom she spent four decades of her life.

It is a heart rending story that is equally melancholy as it is effective in conveying the lonely, meandering state Didion drudged through attempting to make sense of it all. It is a sad, honest depiction of how she coped with the loss.

Relying on her journalistic skills, she researched the many aspects surrounding death. The insights offered from literature to medical sources provide a unique learning experience while the story progresses.

If there is anything I find objectionable or perhaps unnecessary, it is the references to her elevated social status. Some details like name dropping or describing physical possessions almost sounded like advertising for certain clothing items or restaurants. I suppose however, such references to the 'good life' serve to illustrate that death is unfazed by our social position or net worth and - more importantly - we all suffer the same.

The materialistic references seemed to act as anchor points for the author. Perhaps this is more a demonstration of her attempt to use total recall as a means of not letting John's memory die. Nevertheless, it just seemed gratuitous and irrelevant in the overall scheme of her story. That is what caused me to rate the book 3 stars rather than 4 (out of a possible 5).

Because of her thoroughness of exploration, I was able to cull out many references which I intend to follow up on (eg "How We Die" by Sherwin Nuland).

This is my first experience reading Joan Didion and I like her craftsmanship."The Year of Magical Thinking," is informative and not at all contrived. It is a touching account. Joan Didion's style is relaxed, straight-forward and easy to read. I look forward to reading more of her novels in the future.

Monday, November 02, 2009

My Invented Country; by Isabel Allende - my review

My Invented Country offers an insider's perspective about Chile that is as intimate as it is real. I have read some of the criticisms about Allende's depiction of her homeland and I find them to be without merit. Her descriptions about the national character are quite touching and do not appear in the slightest to be done with any malevolence.

There were points in the book that brought out a chuckle while others - and there were many - caused me to laugh out loud. She has such a wonderful way of describing human nature without being hateful or malicious. The immediacy of her style conveys a sense of intimacy - it is reflective of the conversational style that is shared among friends. I am surprised her detractors missed that.

Her descriptions of the land, the collective mentality and their influence on her are compelling. She makes me want to visit Chile, partially to observe the nuances she points out and mostly because their culture seems fascinating. For me, there is a sense of familiarity with Chileans. Their perspectives are not so different from my own.

What I like most of all about Allende's writing is that she has a knack for drawing out the humorous. Her writing has an endearing quality that is is respectful and not at all caustic. The real reward comes when she discusses with a candor that is inviting and unguarded about how the country of Chile and its world-view have contributed to her abilities as a writer.

Toward the end of her book she references Milton Friedman and his influence (The Chicago School of thought) on the Totalitarianism of the Pinochet Regime. I must admit I was aware of the connection but it really hit home when I was reading Naomi Klein's book "Shock Doctrine."

While Klein does not delve deeply into the atrocities, she does touch upon the effects of Friedman and company had upon Chile and more importantly, their impact on America post 9/11.

I have always considered it ironic that Chile's 9/11 which marked the overthrow of Salvador Allende's elected government and the rise of Totalitarianism - clamping down on individual liberties in the name of security would also share similarly echoed sentiments during George W. Bush II's presidency and, under guidance of the same same Chicago School ideologue; Milton Friedman. Klein refers to the ideology as "Shock Doctrine" - Allende referred to it as, "savage capitalism."... Spooky.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable book that is easy to read but you have to be attentive because she has so much to say and her delivery is so entertaining that you can miss some real gems regarding her craft. The book may be about Chile but the real treat is how she shares her thoughts on her passion as a professional writer.

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