I continue to be a delinquent blogger. Just think of all the useless observations I force on my wife instead of writing in a blog post. Imagine my half-hour monologue about the new ABC legal show "The Deep End" and how it could be so much better than it is. In any case... my trip to Prague, with flights and train rides, gave me a good amount of time to read. Since the new year, I've gotten through a bunch of books. Hence: seven quick and easy book reviews.
1. Lee Eisenberg's Shoptimism: Why the American consumer will keep on buying no matter what. I read Paco Underhill's book, Why We Buy, a number of years ago and really enjoyed it. Underhill talked about why stores put men's clothing on the right-hand side, why The Gap has a table dead-center when you walk in, forcing you to slow down and pick a direction, why supermarkets are laid out the way they are, and all sorts of other things I can't remember. This book seemed like it would cover similar ground, so I picked it up. Indeed, Eisenberg interviews Underhill and spends a fair amount of the book covering exactly the same territory. There's some interesting insights from Eisenberg's tenure as chief marketer for Lands' End, and the book's a nice, breezy discussion of American consumer culture and why most of us buy too many things-- I like reading these kinds of things because they make me feel good about being more frugal than I should be. Mostly, the book made me wish I was Lee Eisenberg. Besides his job at Lands' End, in the past he was the editor of Esquire, and one of the founders of rotisserie baseball. He's written this book as well as a previous one, called The Number, about considering how much money you'll need in order to retire. He seems to have a lovely wife and pleasant children (he references them and their shopping habits throughout the book), and live a very nice life in Chicago. He's had a bunch of neat jobs, his books are quite readable... his life seems like it has been pretty excellent. Is this a book review? No, not really. Do I recommend the book? Yeah, sure. I guess. If you've read Underhill's books, I'm not sure there's enough here that's new, but the odds that you've read Underhill's books and are reading this blog see pretty small.
2. Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath. The Heath brothers' previous book was Made To Stick, which I read a couple of years ago and ranked as one of my top ten books read in 2007. I wrote then: "Ends up seeming less revolutionary at the end than while you're reading it, but a bunch of great stories and examples of why some ideas stick and capture the public's attention while some get swept under the rug. ... Solid book, and a must-read if your job involves presentations of pretty much anything." This book follows exactly-- exactly!-- the same formula, applied to a slightly different category of life and work advice. Instead of how to present ideas, this one looks at how to change behavior. Lots of stories about people in business deciding to pay attention to the small things that were working instead of the big things that weren't, and building on the successes to make even bigger impacts. The Cliffs' Notes: make people aware of problems using effective demonstrations (hey, that's what their first book was about!), break big change into small pieces that are immediately actionable, create new habits, don't overanalyze, find little things that work and build on them. I feel the same way about this book as the last one, except now it just feels like they're following a formula: great stories, feels awesome while you're reading it... and then at the end you realize, hey, fun read, but is there really enough here for me to be this excited about it? The Heath brothers do this book-writing thing incredibly well-- this is a good book-- but it's sort of like self-help candy. Tastes good, sugar high... but, in the end, it's just candy.
3. Michael Lewis's Home Game: An Accidental Guide To Fatherhood. This is a collection of Slate columns that I didn't read on Slate. Collections of columns I could read elsewhere are usually not things I seek out, but for a train ride in Eastern Europe, why not. Michael Lewis is, of course, a terrific writer who can write about anything. I read Michael Chabon's fatherhood book a couple of months ago and it's not entirely dissimilar to this. Good writer, but I'm sort of not sold on the awesomeness of this book. I loved Moneyball, I loved Trail Fever, I love his New York Times Magazine pieces. Michael Lewis on business and politics and explaining some complicated character-driven piece of the universe is excellent. Michael Lewis talking about his kids is somewhat less compelling. And I like books about kids. I just don't know that I ended up feeling like Michael Lewis had anything as interesting to say about being a father as he does about the financial panic. Not a waste, but you should check out the Slate archives before you commit to this one for a train ride through Eastern Europe.
4. Chuck Klosterman's book of essays (sort of), Eating The Dinosaur. This book does exactly what I wish everything I read would do-- it gets you right inside the author's head, it is riffs and essays and sketch fragments and quasi-journalism and thoughtful discussion, and all of the cool pieces of books without being bogged down by plot or character or all that icky stuff. There's a piece on the logic of time travel in movies and television. There's a piece on Ted Kaczynski. There's a piece on the history of laugh tracks in television sitcoms. There's a piece on the best response to the jury on Survivor. There's some music stuff I skimmed, although the Garth Brooks / Chris Gaines piece hooked me and I read that completely through. Very much enjoyed and recommend this book. I wish all the people whose books I want to read would write this kind of book-- it's a blog between pages, in a good way-- it's everything he's thinking about, with enough contemplation and research and organization to deserve to be put on paper-- it's a tour through Klosterman's head. It's a fun book. Completely recommend.
5. David Shields's Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. I should put this paragraph above the previous one, because Klosterman's book is a perfect example of what Shields argues for in his book. I'll get there in a second. Shields is one of the few writers who I will seek out and read no matter what he's writing. He's written novels, he's written non-fiction, he's written books that are hybrids in between-- sports essays, an autobiography about autobiographies, a book about death and his father... I was so looking forward to reading this book, because I think Shields's work is brilliant generally and this book was about exactly what I've written about before on the blog-- the artificial-ness of plot is often dull to me, I want to know what an author is actually trying to say, without having to wade through the fiction to get those nuggets of honesty. Shields takes a similar stand, and in fact goes much further-- his book is a set of quotations and passages, some his and some borrowed, about fiction and reality, writing and thinking, art and life. I should have loved this book. And parts of it I found interesting and worthwhile. But, alas, I am not ready to plant my flag all the way on Shields's end of the continuum. I wanted more story, I wanted more, I don't know, heart. For all the energy Shields spends arguing that in most books, the good nuggets are few and far between, I don't know that turning a book into a set of quotations and short paragraphs made the conversion rate any higher. The good nuggets are hidden almost as much here as in a novel. They're between ordinary quotations, impersonal reflections, ideas without context. By mixing his own thoughts with others, it's never quite clear if you're in Shields's head or someone else's. Not enough of the book goes deep enough, personal enough for me to care. I liked, respected, appreciated the book-- but I didn't love it as much as I'd hoped I would.
6. Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals. Nice book, even if it didn't convince me to stop eating meat. Animals are treated badly. Most meat is factory-farmed, even the stuff that says organic, free-range, etc on it. Foer covers some of the same ground as Michael Pollan, although not entirely-- one of Foer's sources insists that the farm Michael Pollan lauds as being an example of good practices, and spends pages and pages with in his book, is actually just as bad as everyone else. He also makes the case that eating beef is less bad than chicken or fish because of how the animals are treated. I feel bad that animals we eat are treated so poorly. If I had enough money to not be worried about it, I would do my best to support only those producers who treat their animals well. As it is, because my wife only eats kosher meat, we don't buy a lot of meat to cook. I buy almost all of the fish we eat from the farmers market fish guy-- but if I'm being honest it's not because I know how he treats his catch or because I think he's kinder to the fish. It's because it tastes better, it's convenient (farmers market is a block away one day a week), and it's cheaper than the insane prices at the supermarkets and Grand Central's fish vendors-- where the fish are either insanely priced (Grand Central) or look old and unappealing (supermarket). We buy kosher chicken a couple of times a month, but the options are limited-- in LA, I bought Whole Foods air-chilled organic chicken breasts, because they tasted better and the quantity I was buying for myself (not much) meant the added cost was a dollar or two, and I was okay with that. But here, it's Empire or it's nothing. I'm sure Empire does terrible things to the chickens they package, kosher or not, but I try to ignore it. In restaurants, who knows, I'm sure it's all factory-farmed stuff, and if I was a better, more animal-conscious person, I would care more. I like food. And sometimes I like to eat things that come from animals. Not every day, and not in huge quantities even when I do. But a completely meat-free existence would be less tasty. And, sure, it's probably terrible to put my taste preferences ahead of animal welfare. At least that's what this book argues. But, ultimately, even knowing and understanding everything Foer (and Pollan) write about, I can live with my choices. Nice book though.
7. Ian Graham's Unbillable Hours. Graham was an associate at Latham & Watkins for 5 years. This book is about his time at the firm, and mostly about a pro bono case he took on where he got an innocent man out of prison. And then he left the firm, because working at a law firm is not so much fun. I think Graham does as good a job as any writer I've read discussing the reality of law firm life. The pro bono case is interesting, but I found myself skimming those parts to get back to the firm stuff. He's honest without seeming like he has an agenda, without trying to demonize, without making it out to be worse than I'm sure it was. Law students should read this-- or, better yet, college kids before they take the LSAT. Did not expect to enjoy this book as much as I did -- it was a last-minute pickup from the Strand bookstore before my flight. Definitely worth the read. Better than most else in the genre, for sure.