Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A CURIOUS MIND by Brian Grazer

Brian Grazer is a movie producer in Hollywood who teamed with Ron Howard on film projects like Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, The DaVinci Code, Inside Man, American Gangster, etc., and now the TV series Empire. His new book is A CURIOUS MIND, in which he says that curiosity is the key to his success. Life is about asking the right questions, not necessarily finding the answers. Einstein knew this. Dorothy Parker said, "The cure for boredom is curiosity." He recalls meeting Lew Wasserman, a movie mogel, who handed him a pad and pen and said, "Come back when you have something," (ideas), "because right now you got nothing." Desire and drive to be famous or powerful mean little without ideas, and ideas come from curiosity. Co-written with Charles Fishman, and read with sensitivity to the subject by Norbert Leo Butz, the audiobook includes an intro read by Grazer in the same humble tone that made what I thought was a surprising and interesting interview by Charlie Rose on PBS (which is why I wanted to hear this.) It's true--the most effective why to get points across or to challenge people (which he shows examples of doing even with Tom Cruise) is to ask a question. You learn something new in the process too!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

DEAD WAKE by Erik Larson

The Lusitania was sunk in May 1915 by U-20, despite its being the fastest liner afloat. British intelligence was tracking the ship, bearing a number of American women and children as it left New York for Liverpool, but never told anyone about it. And no ships were sent to guard it. Could it be they wanted it sunk to bring America into WW1? The subject has been covered before, but this is the first time in such a literary way, with some new viewpoints never previously explored. It is 100 years ago now, which is one of the reasons that Erik Larson wrote DEAD WAKE. He did extensive research on the subject, including looking at mortuary photos of some of the 1200 victims. Captain Schwieger of U-20 left papers that offered a chilling way of going between the ship's passengers and the submarine's. Narrated by Scott Brick (see interview this website), the book is entertaining and memorable in its detail and sophistication by an author with a knack for creating and sustaining suspense.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

THE SELL by Fredrik Eklund

Fredrik Eklund is a broker for Douglas Elliman, but there isn't much about Elliman in his first book, THE SELL. As the number one broker and media darling of New York, Eklund, a tall gay Swede and one of the stars of Bravo's Million Dollar Listing New York, has patented a signature high kick to get him as much attention as possible. He advises listeners in the audiobook (which he also reads, after a glowing intro from Shark Tank's Barbara Corcoran), how to market themselves on social media, plus how to read people and make them feel good about working with you. The subtitle is telling: "The Secrets of Selling Anything to Anyone." The main goal is to sell yourself, and while he begins by saying that honesty and being protective of one's values, family and friends is vital, he quickly gets back to what is our culture's seemingly exclusive interest: engineering the good life through savvy, attention grabbing publicity while avoiding anything negative in life. On the one hand he believes that jealousy is the worst human trait, and says that he wishes the best for everyone, and on the other he's the Joel Osteen of retail sales--quick witted and strategic. After hearing the latest audiobook by David Brooks, THE ROAD TO CHARACTER (which talks about a rebalance of cultural virtues from wealth/fame/status to more traditional "lost" ones), it might benefit listeners to hear both books before accepting the premise that selling "anything" to get ahead needs no caveats or defense. In any event Eklund is used to giving sales speeches, so he’s also good at reading text, anticipating beforehand the right tone and spin. (BTW, Fredrik and I have something in common: I'm not gay, but my mother was Swedish, we are both 6'4", and his first name is my middle one.)

Monday, March 30, 2015

BELIEVER by David Axelrod

David Axelrod helped engineer the ascent of Barack Obama after working on many campaigns, including Hillary Clinton's. As a former columnist for the Chicago Tribune, he became senior strategist for the Obama campaign, and then senior advisor to the president. Now, in his memoir BELIEVER, he looks back at his forty years in politics with a clear memory of conversations and events behind the scenes, no doubt augmented by notes or diary entries made in anticipation of writing this book. He also reads it on audio, with the same level headed tone that characterized his job in the White House. The picture he paints is one of faith and optimism in his message and ideals within the gamesmanship that is Washington politics. Getting things done requires compromise, and that's difficult when compromise is perceived as weakness. Congressional earmarks, stalled legislation, fabricated scandals, back office backstabbing: these are just a few of the challenges to be endured or negotiated around in the game where reelections seem, unfortunately, to be what matters most. And then there was John Edwards. Axelrod relives his entire life history, with a speechwriter's knack for editing out (or slimming down) what's not important or interesting. So it ends up being a narrative that listeners, regardless of political affiliation, would enjoy hearing.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

VITAMANIA by Catherine Price

VITAMANIA by Catherine Price bears the subtitle "Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection," and comes at a time when Wal Mart and other retailers have gotten into trouble for selling vitamins that do not contain what the label says they do. The FDA decided not to regulate the billion dollar industry, limiting warnings to overdoses of A or D. So, when Adele Davis and Linus Pauling encouraged megadoses of vitamins, the lid was off for companies to make fortunes off gullible people who spent money they (mostly) could have better spent on natural foods with micronutrients in them which the supplements do not contain. Just as the processed (junk) food industry can't make money from people who eat whole foods, so too the same processed food industry gets more profits by extracting (if not artifically producing) vitamins from grains and other foods, and repackaging those vitamins to consumers. Do we need vitamins? Of course, and many foods are deficient in vitamins. But is the solution to eat poor quality foods and supplement them with pills? Price argues no, since one becomes the pawn of charlatans who are unregulated and tend to make claims which are unproven, working off fear and ignorance. Rather than to buy expensive vitamin pills in a myriad range of confusing formulations (whose prices fluctuate according to popular fads), it is better to find out if there are deficiencies in one's diet through one's doctor, and eat better quality food in a wider range. Price, through narrator Erin Bennett, tells why knowing the facts matter. Listening to this book may save you thousands of dollars over time, while protecting your health in the process. 

Bill Gifford in SPRING CHICKEN also talks about (through narrator Jeremy Arthur) the effectiveness of vitamins and other substances or modalities in staying young forever (obviously an impossible goal except via uploading one's brain into a computer.) Not only has the anti-oxidant theory of aging been disproven, but calorie restriction, resveratrol, and other things have limited effects. Having researched this subject for my suspense novel The Methuselah Gene, I found this audiobook interesting and informative, with a broad, memoir style approach that includes many personal stories as the author recalls his encounters with both scientists and pseudo-scientists. He ends with a list of things that may help advance age by preventing major diseases, but the ultimate pill is still science fiction (although they are working on it!) And just as my protagionist speculates how people might react to overpopulation and extended lifespans of the rich, who can afford such pills, he presents his case for moderation and wary skepticism. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015


Steve Almond grew up in a fighting family. Fist fights among his brothers were as natural as breathing. He says he made up for it vicariously by watching Raiders games, where giant men either symbolically (or in reality) broke their opponents into bone fragments. He reveled in the violence which scientists now say does a disservice to young men both physically and mentally, while many high schools have become as much about football as about education. As a mature writer, author of AGAINST FOOTBALL, he still appreciates the attraction to football, but questions some of the uncomfortable realities which have made it America's sport (or religion.) The game almost didn't survive early problems as a hazing ritual, described as two lines of human battering rams, seen as war complete with land and air assaults. But Roosevelt stood up for it, citing it as "manly," somewhat like the Spartans, who forced their children to fight with swords or die. (Spartans is a popular name for young teams today.) Ever since football began to take advantage of its battle narrative "story" structure and make money, promoters and organizers like the NFL have done everything they can to keep the myth alive that it is good and "wholesome" fun...even as they dismiss accusations to the contrary (or bribe officials to stay silent.) Truth is, pro players live, on average, ten years less than non-players. And there are other tolls not calculated in concussions or other injuries. The "glorious triviality" that is football consumes large chunks of public attention that cannot be spent elsewhere, like fixing the problems that we create faster than anyone can solve. It makes our culture, like that of ancient Rome, accepting of the idea that one must choose sides in all debates, and beat the opposition by brute force of will (rather than reason.) Fundamentally, it is about primal instincts---clanish patriotic US vs THEM myopia, while real progress in society usually comes from compromise and innovation. (Sports have fixed rule books that almost never change.) We have made football so important, Almond says, because we are bewildered by the complexity of politics and greed and corruption, but we understand the matchups between teams that stand in for an imperfect and violent world. We want simple answers that feel good, have definitive outcomes, and provide the resolution that life seldom does (except in novels.) Narrated by an always engaging and "manly" Peter Berkrot, the book is a wakeup call to a society that is okay with punishing whistleblowers and encouraging voyeurism in a time when activism, meaning, and truth are in short supply.