Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Joseph Finder: Power Play

A few weeks ago I read Power Play by Joseph Finder. Jake Landry is invited as a last minute substitute to a corporate retreat at a lodge in the Canadian wilderness. He’s not sure why he has been invited to rub shoulders with all the corporate top executives. He’s got strong technical skills that may be useful to some of the decisions to be made. But the corporate politics could be bad for his career.

Things get dicey – and we have a reason for a book – when a band of hunters crashes the opening dinner and holds the executives for ransom. Cut off in the middle of nowhere, the executives seem to have no way out – no hope.

But Jake has a shady past as a juvenile. None of the executives know about it, but he may have the skills they need to survive a tough situation. The plot moves along nicely, as a good suspense thriller should.

I’ve read several books by Joseph Finder, and they’ve all been pretty good. But often I find that his lead character is someone I just don’t like. (Company Man leaps to mind as an example.) It’s hard to care too much about the protagonist’s troubles when you just don’t like the guy. This book was much more enjoyable because we finally have a likeable character. I like Jake; he’s an interesting guy. He has overcome a lot in his past and he has gotten very good at his job. Now he’s in trouble, and we want to see him come through it.

I like the fact that Finder ties his books to a corporate world. A lot more of us have worked for big companies than for the CIA. So it’s easier to relate to Finder’s stories. Although I’m pleased to say that I never faced the kind of incidents Finder describes in my career.

David Baldacci: Stone Cold

David Baldacci’s new book, Stone Cold features a third visit from Oliver Stone and the Camel Club. They are joined by their Secret Service friend, Alex Ford, whom we met in the fist book, The Camel Club, and by the con artist Annabelle Conroy, whom we met in The Collectors. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and tended to neglect my wife and granddaughter before finishing.

This time Oliver Stone’s past comes to haunt him, as former members of his CIA unit are being uncovered and murdered. At the same time, Annabelle’s victim from The Collectors is out to find and kill her. Oliver wants to help, but is concerned that his problems may put her in more danger than her own problems.

Often when I read the continuation of a series, I’ll go back and re-read from the beginning. I love Baldacci so much, and wanted to read this book so much that I decided not to this time. It was a mistake. The book is capable of standing on its own – sort of, but it had a lot of reference to back-story from the earlier books. Although I could remember the broad plots of the earlier stories, the details escaped me. Even though I can understand why Jerry Bagger wants to kill Annabelle, the real depth of the story is lost in my vague memory from The Collectors. I should be a little grateful; my poor memory helps me enjoy the re-reads.

In The Camel Club, Oliver Stone was a very quirky character. I liked that. He’s not so quirky now. He gets his real name back, and becomes more the infallible super-spy, paramilitary expert that we see in so many other books. I miss his quirkiness.

I’ve never read anything by Baldacci that I did not like. And I’ve read (and have in my library) everything listed in his “Also by” credits. That is still true.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Charles McCarry: Christopher's Ghosts

In Christopher’s Ghosts by Charles McCarry we meet Paul Christopher as a 16 year old in Berlin in 1939. With an American father and a German mother and an American passport you might think he would be somewhat protected from Nazi abuses. But his family is no friend to the Nazis. So the Nazis, at personified by Gestapo officer Franz Stutzer, push hard on his family. Surprisingly, it seems that his German mother provides more protection than his American passport.

The first half of the book deals with love and tribulation for the 16 year old boy. Set in bad times, it makes a very interesting story. But the times do not lend themselves to happy endings.

We jump to 20 years later when Christopher, currently working for the OSS, encounters Stutzer by chance. The remained of the book puts a Cold War context on their conflict.

The second half spy story did not seem as gripping to me as the first half coming of age story. The story did not seem to flow as logically. Christopher kept getting his chances at Stutzer, but each time McCarry initiated the contact it felt too coincidental. I know why Christopher wanted to get to Stutzer, I just had trouble understanding why he kept getting chances.

Overall it was a good book and I’m glad to have read it.

I had never read anything by McCarry before, and until after I finished the book, I did not realize that Paul Christopher is a regular character of his. I did like the guy, so I should probably try one of his earlier stories to see if I like the spy story any better. I do, after all, like spy stories.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Patricia Beard: Blue Blood & Mutiny

Blue Blood and Mutiny: The Fight for the Soul of MorganStanley by Patricia Beard is a business book about the importance of corporate culture.

MorganStanley came into existence during the depression, when Congress passed a law prohibiting banks to be involved in both commercial and investment banking. JP Morgan remained in commercial banking, while several partners, including Henry Morgan and Harold Stanley left the company to open a new investment bank.

In 1997, MorganStanley merged with Dean Witter Discover. Dean Witter Discover’s CEO, Phillip Purcell, became CEO of the merged company.

I’m reminded of the adage that history is written by the winners. From the perspective of this book, Purcell was never qualified to run a company as great as MorganStanley. He came to Dean Witter by way of Sears and the Discover Card, and never had a true background in banking. Almost as bad, he never relocated to the company’s New York headquarters or associated with others in the financial industry. Instead he commuted from Chicago and avoided client contact.

The MorganStanley culture lived by JP Morgan’s motto “A First Class Business in a First Class Way”. Promotion was through merit, and decisions were made by thoroughly thrashing out competing ideas. From the perspective of long time MorganStanley executives, Purcell undermined the company’s approach to excellence. He surrounded himself with “Yes Men” and drove off top talent with competing ideas. Promotion was through agreeing with the boss, not through merit.

In 2005, eight former executives led by former chairman Parker Gilbert, challenged the new management, demanding that Purcell resign. The fight became public with full page Wall Street Journal ads when Purcell’s hand-picked board refused to talk to them. The opposition became know as the “Eight Grumpy Old Men”.

Part of the justification for the attack was that under Purcell’s guidance the company’s stock was underperforming its peers, and the company mishandled major government and civil lawsuits. The company’s reputation was falling. But it seems to me that the real reason was that these former executives loved the company and its culture. They saw the culture eroding, and the company sliding.

The end result was that the Old Men won. Purcell was forced out. The board brought back the former President, John Mack. John Mack restored the culture, the stock price recovered, and everyone lived happily ever after.

I transferred my retirement funds to MorganStanley in 2003 and have been very happy with my results. It is probably a tribute to my account management team that I was pretty unaware of all this turmoil while it was happening. (Thanks Fred and Michelle.) At my next account review I’ll try to get a feel for their opinion of the book and the culture clash.

Many management books, seminars, or training programs talk about the importance of corporate culture. Many employees ignore the whole thing, thinking it’s a joke or a waste of time. Maybe that’s because a lot of us worked in companies with weak cultures. Blue Blood & Mutiny brings the message home.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

John Ferling: Almost A Miracle

I’ve just finished Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling.

Back in 2003 I read A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic by the same author. A Leap in the Dark was a look at the amazing challenges faced and overcome in creating a republic in an age of monarchy. It covers the politics from colonial resistance, through establishment of a government, to the orderly transfer of power represented by the election of 1800. I was impressed enough that I had to read Ferling’s new book when it came out.

Almost a Miracle retells the military history of the American Revolution. But it is more than a new narrative of battles and dates. Instead it focuses on the strategic and tactical decisions made by both British and American leaders. Why did the British not fortify Dorchester Heights outside Boston? Why did Washington wait so long before doing so? Each year of the war is introduced with a chapter on strategic choices being made that determine the nature of the year’s campaign. Major battles are described from the perspective of why the generals made their particular forms of attack or defense.

George Washington loses some of his luster in this history. He is seen as most effective when he listens to good advice. He shows frequent bouts of indecisiveness and poor judgment. He appears highly conscious of his reputation, and jealous of any generals who may overshadow him. But he did learn from his mistakes. And his character comes across as vital to American history. It took a man of Washington’s character to stay the course, remain respectful of civilian authority, and step aside at the end of the war.

Horatio Gates and Charles Lee both receive better treatment in this book than usual. As former British officers who settled in the colonies, they brought professional expertise that Washington needed.

Lafayette, Alexander Hamilton, and others in Washington’s military “family” fare badly in this book. They are used as examples of Washington surrounding himself with “Yes Men”.

Nathanial Greene, Henry Knox, Daniel Morgan, John Glover, and Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee retain their strong reputations. Benedict Arnold gets the positive treatment as a great general that I first encountered in the writings of Kenneth Roberts. – although he does have that one serious issue near the end of the war.

Ferling gives the Colonial Militias more credit than most historians. Generally Washington and other American commanders had bad things to say about the militia. But in fact it was militia that bottled the British in Boston. And the New Jersey militia harassed the British through the winter of 1777 while Washington’s Continentals were in winter quarters. The militia protected the home fronts, keeping loyalists in check throughout the war. After the loss of one major army, and the defeat of another in the South, it was militia and partisan bands that kept the British tied down protecting their supply lines. Morgan and Greene are both credited with making effective use of militia in major battles. So although the generals would prefer regular troops, the militia was indispensable to the war.

In the battle for Charlestown in 1780, Cornwallis captured Benjamin Lincoln’s army intact. This was the first time that a major American army had not slipped away to fight another day. This loss led to the only widespread territorial gain by British forces. It led also to significant recruiting of loyalist units, and bitter guerilla fighting as the British tried to pacify their gains.

Ferling leaves the impression that the Americans needed to win the war in 1781. The capture of Cornwallis at Yorktown saved the Revolution. Without a major victory during that campaign season, the French would have pulled out of the war, and neutral European countries would have dictated a peace that would have left the United States with fewer states and no western territory.

I’ve read a lot of American Revolution history. I enjoyed getting Ferling’s spin on a story I love.

Friday, November 9, 2007

J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the ...

Can a grown man admit to liking Harry Potter? I hope so, because I’m doing that now. But it’s hard to think of what to say that hasn’t already been said. Mainly I feel that this series entered my life as a good friend, and it’s a little sad to know there aren’t more books coming. But I know that in a couple years I can reread the entire series and enjoy it again.

I’ve always wondered about the people who protest against Harry Potter books – the people that want them banned. I can understand that there are people out there who simply are not interested. Not everyone enjoys the suspension of reality that goes with a good fantasy. But not buying the books is different from trying to keep others from buying them.

I’ve never talked to someone who wants the books banned, but I hear the problem is that they promote witchcraft. To me that’s like being opposed to Disney cartoons because they promote talking mice and ducks. This is all pretend! JK Rowling has imagined an interesting world of magic, fleshed it out with fun incidents. And while at it she has put in a classic struggle of good versus evil. And there is never any doubt that she prefers good.

So where does the opposition come from? Is it the same source as the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s? To most of us, these books are a fun story with a fun premise. But I suppose if you really believe in witchcraft, you could see this as subversive. How else can you be offended by promoting witchcraft?

In any case, Rowling has given us a good ride, and I appreciate it.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

John Twelve Hawks: The Dark River and The Traveler

Recently, John Twelve Hawks published The Dark River the second volume in his Fourth Realm Trilogy. I remember reading the first, The Traveler when it came out in 2005. I remember it being a little weird, and I don’t always like weird. So I pulled out The Traveler and re-read it. Turns out that this time weird is OK.

In The Traveler we learn the underlying philosophy. Our life on Earth is part of the Fourth Realm. There are five others. There are certain individuals who have the ability to leave their bodies in this realm and travel to other realms. They often prove to be the great thinkers of their times – Jesus, Mohamed, Newton, Ghandi, etc. Travelers can disrupt the existing social order, and so are opposed by the Tabula (or the Brethren as they call themselves). In promoting stability, the Tabula is trying to end privacy as we know it and implement a virtual prison for all of society. They historically try to kill all Travelers that they can find. A third group, the Harlequins dedicate their lives exclusively to the protection of Travelers. Naturally, the Tabula tries to eliminate them as well. So Harlequins try to stay below the computerized, documented radar of current society, “The Grid”. “The Grid” is monitored and controlled by the Tabula.

The stories follow the activities of Maya, the reluctant Harlequin, and Gabriel and Michael Corrigan, Travelers. Michael ends up cooperating with the Tabula, while Maya is helping Gabriel hide from the Tabula. We meet many interesting characters, both allies of Maya’s and members of the Tabula. The characters are written well enough that we care what happens to them. And sometimes, bad things happen to good people in these books.

When The Traveler ends it is obvious that the story is not over – kind of like Darth Vadar escaping after the first Star Wars movie. But it does reach a logical stopping point. The Dark River leaves us hanging with a very unresolved plot. It’s as bad as a “To Be Continued” TV show. Even when someone shot JR we just had to wait through the summer re-run season to find out what happened. But I suspect we’ll have to wait two years to pick up this story again. The Traveler could stand on its own as a book. The Dark River cannot. I don’t think it would make any sense to start the story with the second book. And I almost wish I had waited for the third book to come out before starting any of them.

The books make you think about how far we are going in computerizing our lives and sacrificing privacy for security. I personally don’t think we’ve gone too far yet, but I can understand the picture of what too far looks like. And maybe we are closer than I like to think. If you are extremely sensitive about your religion – offended by what you consider sacrilegious, these books are probably not for you.

Like I said at the beginning, I think the premise of the story is a little weird, a little supernatural. But when I set aside my logical or personal beliefs and accept the premise, then I find the story to make a good read. But dog-gone it, I hate to be left hanging.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

John Grisham: Playing for Pizza

I just finished John Grisham's Playing for Pizza. It is a pleasant little book. Like his earlier A Painted House, it is not a lawyer book. Unlike A Painted House, this book is pretty light hearted.

The basic story is about a not so great NFL quarterback who is not ever going to make it big. After all his choices run out, he goes to play in the Italian football league. The description of Rick Dockery’s fall is absolutely hilarious. And the mistakes he makes in Italy are pretty entertaining as well. Learning to drive (and park) a stick shift is classic.

I think this is a story of being open minded, setting priorities in life, and keeping commitments. In many ways, it’s a coming of age story – if that’s allowed for someone in his late twenties. I think Rick Dockery finally grows up in Italy.

But even though there may be some character values offering redeeming social benefit, to me the best thing about the book is that it's fun.