Sunday, September 27, 2009

Reading Habits in the UAE and the Gulf

Reading Rates
A Khaleej Times article looks between the covers to reveal the reading habits and trends in the UAE and countries of the Persian Gulf.

Karen Ann Monsy says that reading in the Gulf still lags behind developed countries.

* The average Arab reads only 6 minutes a year (Arab Human Development Report, 2003).

* One library book is borrowed yearly for every four persons in the UAE c.f. In many western countries the lending (and hopefully reading) rate is noticeably higher with every person borrowing four books a year.

Recent Initiatives
Recent initiatives in the UAE are addressing this situation and setting the pages in motion.

Karen Ann Monsy writes about the initiatives to get people reading in the United Arab Emirates and the Gulf countries.

Karen Ann Monsy, Between the Covers, Khaleej Times, 11 September 2009.

Dr Geoff Pound

Geoff can be contacted by email at geoffpound(at) on Facebook and Twitter.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Barrie Hibbert Reviews the Movie, ‘Is Anybody There?’

In England, old actors never die… they just get bit parts in movies about elderly people in residential care.

In the latest of these old-age home dramas “Is Anybody There?” veteran Michael Caine is superb as the retired magician, Clarence Parkinson … or “The Amazing Clarence” as the gaudy sign on the side of his battered old van proclaims.

Clarence, a widower, has been assessed by the local authority as being in the early stages of dementia and unable to care for himself any longer. A place is found for him at Lark Hall run by a couple who have turned their house into a rest home for the elderly. Among the dozen or so mainly eccentric and fairly decrepit residents, are a number of characters whose faces will be familiar to film-goers of years gone by. They certainly look older than when I recall their earlier appearances, but Leslie Phillips is no less dapper, and Sylvia Sims’ glamour, though faded, is still evident.

“Is Anybody There?” tells the story of the unlikely friendship that develops between Clarence and Edward, the eleven-year-old son of the couple who run the home. As the film’s promotional leaflet says, “It is a charming story about growing up and growing old.”

There are some hilarious moments in the film, but as the plot unfolds there are fewer laughs, and there is a profound poignancy in the way the old man and the boy try to help each other to “lay their ghosts.”

For me, some of the most poignant moments come near the end of the story. Clarence had been haunted for many years by the guilt he felt in cheating on his lovely wife, Annie and then finally walking out on her.

Talking with Edward one day, he remarked how beautiful she had been, how much he had loved her and how badly he had treated her. Then he said, “Years ago, I found out she’d died … and… you know… I’ve never even visited her grave. ”

In an attempt to help his old friend, Edward discovers where Annie is buried and takes Clarence on a bus journey to the cemetery. They locate the grave, but the old man, by now quite deeply into his dementia, looks at the name Annie Parkinson on the headstone with a measure of interest but no emotion. All he can say is, “Well, look at that… she’s got the same name as my missus.”

But even in the haze of his growing mental incapacity, Clarence is still racked with guilt. One day, after he has wandered far from the home, he ends up dazed and confused in the hands of the police. Eventually, the couple who run the home are contacted and they arrive to pick up poor old Clarence and take him back to Lark Hall.

On the way home, he is sitting in the back seat with the wife. In his confusion he thinks she is Annie and he starts to pour his heart out to her, telling her how desperately sorry he is for all the pain he has caused her. “It’s alright,” she tells him, “It’s alright.” But Clarence keeps saying over and over again, through his tears, “I’m sorry, Annie… I’m sorry, I’m terribly sorry! ” He is inconsolable.

Then the young woman does something quite extraordinary. She takes the old man’s face gently in her hands, looks into his tear-filled eyes and in a firm, but quiet and tender voice says, “I forgive you… I forgive you, Clarence.” Then, even more deliberately, “I –- forgive -- you.”

He is stunned into silence. As the words hit home, the old man’s tortured face relaxes into a gentle smile, and he nestles his head on the young woman’s shoulder, and sleeps quietly for the rest of the journey.

I am sure I will long recall many of the scenes from this remarkable film, but probably the most memorable will be the one when the back seat of that car became a confessional… the caring young woman became a priest… and a weary old sinner found forgiveness and peace.

Thanks to Barrie Hibbert, Adelaide, South Australia.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Images from the movie.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Great Crash 1929 by John Kenneth Galbraith

John Kenneth Galbraith’s 1954 classic, The Great Crash 1929, has been running off the book shelves of late. People are searching for wisdom or a wise prescription to help them negotiate a path out of their personal recession.

The book has been revised and reprinted but it is amazingly fresh. The stories of ‘get rich’ schemes, the original Ponzi and bankers brazenly paying themselves lavish salaries when their banks are in crisis, give this book an astonishing contemporary feel.

Readers will be interested to study the role of the President (‘too hands off or hands on?), the Federal Reserve, the calls of ‘superficial optimism’ designed to boost confidence and the issue of how to regulate the regulators.

1929. These four numbers are etched into the collective memories like 1066, 1776, 1914 or 9/11.

Galbraith says that his literary task was “to tell what happened in 1929 and immediately before and after.” (p25)

It is not the purpose of this author to make predictions about whether history would repeat itself and whether there would be another recession on the size of the crash in ’29.

While Galbraith is not assuming the role of economic forecaster, this book does have some important lessons to say to businesspeople and individuals who are seeking to be wise about their saving and spending. This book is a vaccination against memory loss. Galbraith believes that instead of transacting loads of legislation to ensure a crash doesn’t happen again it is far better to regularly refresh the memory with the lessons of history.

The cyclical nature of speculation, boom and bust make this book an antidote to amnesia. It should be read every five years or when contemplating the possibility of a big investment. Sadly, this is a history book that illustrates that people learn little from history.

One doesn’t have to be an economist to enjoy or benefit from this book on economics as it has simplicity, drama and fluctuating emotion.

This is a close and careful study of an economic cycle, stopping frame by frame to comment on the forecasts, the disintegration of confidence, the mysteries of the Stock exchange, the explanations, the postmortems, the suicides, the ‘pregnant lessons’ and the calls, ‘Never Again’.

Galbraith writes engagingly and with color. For example, writing about Wall Street he says:

“Wall Street, in these matters, is like a lovely and accomplished woman who must wear black cotton stockings, heavy woolen underwear, and parade her knowledge as a cook because, unhappily, her supreme accomplishment is as a harlot.” (p48)

Similarly, Galbraith pours out pithy wisdom in apt definitions like this:

Will Payne explains the difference between a gambler and an investor. A gambler, he pointed out, wins only because someone else loses. Where it is investment, all gain. (p50)

John Kenneth Galbraith, The Great Crash 1929 (London: Penguin, 1954, 1975).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 65.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Great Crash 1929.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Can Anything Compete With a Great Book?

The National has commenced the first installment of a four-part series in which Abu Dhabi families talk about their reading habits at a time when book sales still prove strong.

“But when it comes to being truly lifted out of ourselves, to learning about worlds and lives not our own, to having our imaginations sparked and to sheer, lose-yourself pleasure, can anything compete with a great book?”

Link: Hooked on Books, The National, 1 June 2009.

Dr Geoff Pound

Monday, June 1, 2009

Sales Rise When Obama Endorses Books

When President Barack Obama recently told The New York Times Magazine that he was reading “Netherland,” the novel caught fire.

Sales quickly rose by 40 percent and as of last week, the book had sold more than 95,000 copies.

“It was getting so much attention and we were in such demand that we decided to move up the release of the paperback by a month,” said Russell Perreault, vice president and director of publicity at Vintage Books, the novel’s publisher. “It’s been fantastic.”

Like presidents before him, when Obama reveals the current title on his nightstand, good things happen for that book.

To read entire article follow this link.

Dr Geoff Pound

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a short story told over a ‘perfect cup of tea’ by a Pakistani to an American who is in Lahore on business.

It is a personal, introspective account of the Pakistani’s experience of living and working in the USA and why he (Changez) returned to his homeland. With intrigue and tension the storyteller shares his journey, including his experience of love, loss and his changing cultural identity.

One wonders how much of this story is autobiographical. The novelist, Mohsin Hamid, tells readers of his web site that he “was born in Pakistan, attended college and law school in America, worked in New York, and now lives in London.”

The style of the book is akin to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in which a Pakistani businessman accosts an American in the quaint district of Old Anarkali. There is no conversation and one wonders how the Pakistani can keep this very quiet American silent for the duration of the story. The storyteller returns his readers to the present and to Pakistan at the beginning and end of each chapter. Often the transition is done in an abrupt manner. The host’s questions of his guest about the tea and the food are rhetorical and forced. Perhaps a monologue is always bound to seem unnatural but the speech is contrived and often condescending. To reveal the intimacies of love and loss to a stranger may seem odd. Perhaps part of the frustration evoked by this book is due to the reader’s desire to question the storyteller—to challenge and to seek clarification. Or maybe this cloudiness about the storyteller and what is happening, adds to the mystery and the unsettling nature of the story.

One benefit of the technique is that the Pakistani storyteller is addressing an American and thereby giving him the opportunity to share with his guest some home truths. Here the story develops beyond a personal yarn to acquire an international dimension about the delights and drawbacks of America and the way he sees its place in the world.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is about the changing life in America, especially in the days following the tragedies in New York on 9/11. The book may express how some Pakistanis feel about America, thus, it is a good book, especially for Americans to read over a ‘perfect cup of tea’.

Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (London: Penguin Books, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 39.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

About Lincoln
This is a comprehensive book about one of the greatest, if not the greatest US President, Abraham Lincoln. It tells grippingly of the political campaign that won him the surprising nomination and it focuses on his magnanimity in forgiving his rivals and elevating them to significant positions in his team.

Hologram History
Pulitzer Prize winning author, Doris Kearns Goodwin, has a remarkable ability to popularize history without ‘dumbing down’ or ‘gilding the lily’. Like her subject, she writes in colorful language and with vivid images. For instance she likens her approach to seeing through a hologram:

“Just as a hologram is created through the interference of light from separate sources, so the lives and impressions of those who companioned Lincoln give us a clearer and more dimensional picture of the president himself.” (pxv)

Lincoln and Obama
Team of Rivals has been billed as “the book that inspired Barack Obama.” This statement and his recommendation—“a wonderful book…a remarkable study in leadership”—has done much to see this 900 page history book selling over one million copies.

Readers will be tantalized to identify the similarities between the two presidents—their emergence from humble beginnings, their indebtedness to their mothers, their rise from obscurity, their inexperience compared to their opponents, their stirring oratory, their hands-on training in grassroots politics and their coming to the White House at a time of crisis and war.

Study in Leadership
Subtitled, The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin makes a study of her subject’s leadership qualities—his ability to connect with people through apt stories, his passion for rendering experience and practical wisdom into powerful language, his skill in moral persuasion, his strategy to give offense to no one, his sense of understanding the pulse of his people, his ability to earn trust and the possession of a mysterious persona that set him apart from others.

The book tells of dreams, ambitions, disappointments, mistakes, Lincoln’s attentiveness to regulating his emotional balance, and the ways he found relief from the burdens of the office. It is interesting throughout the scope of this book to observe Lincoln’s growing confidence, his ease in exercising leadership and also his increasing despondency, through bearing the strains of war, controversy and personal grief.

Lovers of speechmaking will enjoy learning about the process by which Lincoln’s speeches were crafted (including the Gettysburg Address) and the immediate impression that his oratory made on his hearers.

Appointing a team of rivals (‘like a crossword puzzle’) is one step, but how Lincoln forged them into a powerful force, is the thesis of this book.

And More
Readers will experience the tension of the political campaigns, sense the challenge of abolishing slavery without splitting the country, gain insights into the tantrums of the First Lady, discover details on the renovations at the White House and learn of the intrigue amid the social life of the elite in the capital.

Team of Rivals will prove to be the definitive manual for US Presidents and all those seeking to be effective leaders.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (London: Penguin Books, 2005, 2009).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 72.00.

Excerpts from the book on Lincoln’s ability as a storyteller are posted at this link: ‘Abraham Lincoln the Storytelling President,’ Stories for Speakers and Writers.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Team of Rivals.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers: The Story of Success, is a book that has wide appeal but will be of special interest to lawmakers, politicians, parents and teachers who think about how they might maximize the potential of children and young people to do well in life.

In his Acknowledgements, Malcolm Gladwell, the British-born Canadian journalist (New Yorker), author, blogger and pop sociologist, states: “This is a book about the meaning of work.” (298)

The focus, as the title suggests is on ‘outliers’—people who do things that are out of the ordinary.

The author torpedoes popular notions of ‘success’, as expressed in the celebrity culture and the status attributed to sportspeople.

The first part of the book addresses the age-old debate that crops up in Education 101 about Nature v Nurture. Is success largely attributable to the genes with which we have been given and our innate intelligence or to our parentage and patronage? This discussion addresses the relationship between success and IQ. Are the contestants who perform well in game shows like Who Wants to be a Millionaire successful people? Gladwell interestingly makes the distinction between analytical intelligence and practical intelligence, the difference between being smart and being savvy.

Gladwell asks about the role of place and environment and how parents and teachers might go about shaping a culture that is conducive to learning and growth.

The subtitle, The Story of Success, suggests that readers can expect a book with lots of stories but what Gladwell uses is not so much stories that can be used by raconteurs but case studies that open windows, earth the discussion and assist in persuasion.

Gladwell draws from the experience of well-known and not so well-known computer programmers, violinists, chess players and entrepreneurs. In the New Yorker Gladwell has displayed great skill in taking ordinary, everyday things like T-shirts, ketchup, office design, French fries, coffee, shopping malls and paper and enabling his readers to see something more.

The second part of Outliers examines the traditions and attitudes we inherit from our forebears and asks about the extent to which people might be assisted to succeed by building and treasuring our cultural legacies.

This section looks at the differences in the cultures in which we have been raised, especially examining the ‘tendencies, assumptions and reflexes’ that shape these communities. It is fascinating to read various studies from which Gladwell draws, that explore the freedom or fear within cultures to disagree with the elderly and those in authority. These also examine different values that cultures espouse and how being nurtured in these communities creates or hinders the formation of successful people.

The author’s motivation is that readers might be attentive to the conditions that promote good living, learning and growth and that we might “build societies that provide opportunities for the growth of all.” (268)

Gladwell, who also wrote the internationally popular books, Tipping Point (2000) and Blink (2005), has developed a reputation for synthesizing huge wads of dry research into books that are interesting, clear, simple, colorful and related to questions that many ordinary people are asking.

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (London: Allen Lane, Penguin, 2008).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 72.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: The front cover of Outliers.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Poems From the Desert by Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum

His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s latest book is a collection of twenty-seven poems contained in sixty-six pages.

This volume, Poems from the Desert, is introduced by the Brazilian writer, Paulo Coelho, whose foreword is a model of poetic eloquence.

While journalists, entrepreneurs and admirers the world over have hungrily scanned papers and web sites to learn about this can-do Sheikh, perhaps nowhere is there a more revealing glimpse of the man than in this volume of poems.

In Poems from the Desert His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum lifts the veil on his soul and bares to the world a wide range of human emotions—passionate love, red hot justice, an exuberance for life, an enduring concern for his people, an honor for his heroes, a holy indignation towards cruelty and a respect for his nation’s heritage. There is yearning, tears and sleepless nights. As Coelho declares, “Writing is an act of courage.” (pxii)

Colours Bright
In one poem the poet says:

“I would paint my words with meaningful verse,
With colours so bright that they tease the eyes.” (p11)

Rich with meaning and replete with mystery, these words are painted with memorable images that emerge out of the Arabian desert—camels, gazelles, moonlight, blazing sun, rainfall, horses, hawks, pearls and eyelashes.

The words not only tease the eyes but they bring readers to all their senses including the throb of life, the roar of the lion and the fragrance of jasmine, roses and rosewater.

It is not clear how many of these poems were first penned in Arabic (perhaps none) but their existence in the English language will introduce hundreds to the long and rich poetic tradition in Arabia.

This volume will cause one to think not only of the ruler of Dubai, the canny businessman or the successful horseman at the track but the quiet wisdom being revealed to the pensive poet in the desert.

Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Poems from the Desert (Dubai: Motivate Publishing, 2009).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 75.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Poems from the Desert.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Hot Flat and Crowded by Thomas Friedman

In this book Thomas Friedman graphically addresses the world issues of hot (global warming), flat (the rise of the middle classes), and crowded (rapid population projections).

The important contribution is Friedman’s conviction about the interrelatedness of these issues and his belief that solutions must be tackled in the same way that an Olympian might prepare for a triathlon (p173).

This is a big book—big in size (400+ pages), big in subject, big in scope, big in ideas, big in challenge and big in optimism.

It is not designed to read at a single sitting but it is a book to study, a reference book to which one might often return.

The format of the book is clear as it divides into five parts—three which explore vital questions and then some words about and addressed to some key players:

1. Where we are.
2. How we got there.
3. How we move forward.
4. China.
5. America.

The first half of the book is a diagnosis of the global challenge while the second half is a discussion or an argument about how we can meet those challenges.

Much of the research (reading, travelling, interviewing and writing) was done while Friedman took a sabbatical from his regular gig as a columnist with the New York Times. The author doesn’t purport to be a climatologist, economist or demographer and this is what makes his writing so accessible. Friedman’s journalistic training helps him to ferret out the questions, synthesize a welter of information and argue the issues persuasively and entertainingly. Hot, Flat, and Crowded is too important a book to be shelved as an academic treatise for the author addresses ordinary citizens who want to do something constructive about these world concerns.

The book is laden with anecdotes and quotes to inspire and share. The author is personable, who tells stories as if he is talking to you across the coffee table with the cappuccino froth settling on his moustache.

But Friedman is also prophetic and fearless in pointing up the ‘dumb’ things that politicians have done while ignoring the serious trends afflicting the globe. He is not afraid to put the acid on American leaders who have taken their eye off the ball before calling them to refocus and try again.

While tackling global issues Friedman addresses specific countries such as China and he has an interesting section on ‘Oil and Islam’ which surveys the impact of the Saudization of the Middle Eastern region.

The book targets the USA because emerging nations are aping America and because the author believes what Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s federal environment minister, remarked to him in an interview: “If the Americas are going green, the whole rest of the world is going green.” (p177)

Behind the words of this book lies a passion borne of a great sense of moral responsibility. Friedman is positive while sounding a note of urgency to his readers.

His insistence on the need for innovation is of paramount importance, as seen in this statement: “If you take only one thing away from this book, please take this: We are not going to regulate our way out of the problems of the Energy-Climate Era. We can only innovate our way out, and the only way to do that is to mobilize the most effective and prolific system for transformational innovation and commercialization of new products ever created on the face of the earth…” (p243)

Seeking to be practical and expecting that his readers will make changes to their lifestyle, Friedman paints scenarios of what an ideal farm might look like in Brazil and how a ‘green’ kitchen in a Californian suburb might differ from the present high-energy consuming models. In the Acknowledgements section with which he concludes, the author reveals some of the ‘green’ choices that he and his wife have made in regard to their property, home, car and lifestyle.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded is recommended for concerned citizens of this planet and should be essential reading for politicians. It is also hoped that President Obama has a well-thumbed copy of this book on his bedside table in the White House.

Thomas L Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why the World Needs a Green Revolution—and How We Can Renew Our Global Future (London: Allen Lane, Penguin, 2008).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 105.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front covers of Hot, Flat, and Crowded and the author.

More on the author, his web site (with audio and video clips) and Hot, Flat, and Crowded HFC (with a free discussion guide).

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Moons of Jupiter by Alice Munro

This is a collection of twelve short stories by Canadian writer, Alice Munro, many of which were previously published in magazines during the 1970s and 1980s.

Munro’s Introduction gives a revealing glimpse into personal misgivings about her writing and her ‘queasiness’ toward examining her work once she has ‘abandoned’ it to the publishers. She speaks about the way this collection has stories that are “closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” (pxiii)

Alice Munro offers this interesting insight into the way experience intersects with her writing:

“When you start out to write a story many things come from distant parts of your mind and attach themselves to it. Some things you thought would be part of it fall away; others expand. So with hope and trepidation and frequent surprise you put the whole things together.” (pxiv)

Some of the short stories come from personal experiences while others come from observation. While they were all written while Munro was living in Canada, Bardon Bus has an Australian setting and was prompted by a visit she made to the southern continent. One of the revealing statements in the Introduction is when Munro says: “I can’t see that travel ever has much effect on me, as a writer.” (pxv)

Munro fascinates with words, drama, humor and pace. She often accompanies her telling of stories with insightful reflection, as in Chaddeleys and Flemings when she recounts a visit by her relatives when she was a girl:

“Connection. That was what it was all about. The cousins were a show in themselves, but they also provided a connection. A connection with the real, and prodigal, and dangerous, world. They knew how to get on in it, they had made it take notice. They could command a classroom, a maternity ward, the public; they knew how to deal with taxi drivers and train conductors.”

“The other connection they provided, and my mother provided as well, was to England and history…” (p6-7)

Like a skilful photographer, Munro often focuses on the unusual, such as her experience of working as a turkey gutter, or the distinctive, as when she highlights the hands of an aunt that were ‘red as a skinned rabbit’.

Each of the short stories are magnificently constructed with introductions that quickly engage, tantalizing images that recur and conclusions that echo in the mind like a rock dropped in a canyon.

Alice Munro, The Moons of Jupiter (London: Vintage, 1982, 2004).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 42.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Moons of Jupiter.

Martin Luther King, Jr. On Leadership by Donald T Phillips

Dr Martin Luther King Jnr. made a valuable contribution to America and the world in the second half of the twentieth century. Much has been written on his life and speeches so is there a need for yet another book on the freedom fighter from Atlanta?

Distinctive Features
Author, Donald T Phillips thinks there is a need for a book that focuses on King as an effective leader and Martin Luther King, Jnr. on Leadership is the result. Phillips, in his book which was published in 1998, commences with King’s own words which establish the Baptist preacher’s conviction about the importance of leadership:

“People are often led to causes and often become committed to great ideas through persons who personify those ideas. They have to find embodiment of the idea in flesh and blood in order to commit themselves.” (Feb. 13, 1961).

Phillips is a prominent writer and speaker in the field of leadership studies so his previous books, including Lincoln on Leadership and The Founding Fathers on Leadership, as well as his knowledge of contemporary leadership gurus (Senge, Covey and Gardner), give to this book some historical reference points and richness.

The author is a captivating and inspiring storyteller who retells the King story in a comprehensive manner with extensive footnotes, an index and a bibliography to point serious students further. The distinctive contribution of this book is the fresh look at King through the lens of leadership as Phillips boils down the principles that will help emerging leaders.

In the introduction Phillips presents an outline of King’s life which will impress readers with the author’s intimate knowledge of his subject’s work and writings. Those who have studied many books on King’s life will surely discover new features. For instance, I had overlooked in my previous reading of King’s life the matter of his suicide attempts when he was a boy. The introduction and the body of this book also reveal clearly King’s orientation toward action, and his unwillingness to think the job was done when delivering fancy sermons and orations.

The author breaks down the subject into chronological sections: Preparing to Lead, Guiding the Movement, Winning with People and Ensuring the Future.

The sixteen chapters appear are entitled as maxims for aspiring leaders e.g. First Listen: Lead by being Led; Learn, Learn, Learn; Master the Art of Public Speaking and Encourage Creativity and Innovation.

Each chapter concludes with a one page summary with bullet points on the leadership principles that arise from the King leadership style.

Many will find it helpful but some readers will tire of the author’s propensity to convert or conclude the narrative with ‘5 Steps’, ’10 Points’ or ‘six strategies’.

Being part of a Business/Management genre (that also comes as an audiobook) the tone of this book is predictably admiring and upbeat. Phillips cites King’s initial reluctance when he was catapulted into leadership early in his work in Montgomery but the author rarely explores or highlights his subject’s flaws or weaknesses, an area that might make King more human and more accessible as a hero that budding leaders might follow.

Donald T Phillips, Martin Luther King, Jnr. on Leadership: Inspiration and Wisdom for Challenging Times (New York: Warner Business Books, 1998).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 75.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Martin Luther King, Jnr. on Leadership.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

If Olaya Street Could Talk by John Paul Jones

Talk About the Title
Olaya Street is the main commercial road in Riyadh, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). In 1978 it became the address of hospital administrator, John Paul Jones, the author of this book. The title is adapted from a line in James Baldwin’s song, 'Beale Street Blues'-‘If Beale Street Could Talk’-thus Jones writes the words he thinks Olaya Street might say to those who care to listen.

Talk About the Author
When John Jones went to Saudi Arabia he imagined that his stay would be brief but he explains not only how he came to go but why he stayed.

Jones had served as a Medical Corpsman in Vietnam with the US Army and after his Asian assignment he discovers how serendipity played a major factor in securing his job in the Kingdom. With honesty he admits that the two month annual holiday was one of the determining factors in his signing on the dotted line.

The author writes not only of the main street but of the entire Arabian Peninsula and how it filled him with awe. (p23) His curiosity and the rise of a “strange attachment” to this foreign land led him to stay, to marry and raise a family in that country.

Talk About Change
Jones recalls that goats were grazing on the side of the narrow, asphalt lane called ‘Olaya Street’ when he arrived in 1978. At that time there was no television, life was basic, the social interaction was intense and the camaraderie was rich.

Jones writes of the country’s increasing oil wealth, the growing openness of the country to other nations and the changing perceptions of Saudis and the watching world. Of special mention is the account of 9/11 with the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York. Jones writes poignantly of the mix of reactions to this calamity by those in his hospital and in the community generally. He tells of the way the local people responded to the growing international negativity towards Muslims and Saudis specifically, when it became known that some of the terrorists involved had connections with the Kingdom.

With acute observation Jones writes of modernization and resistance, the ebb and flow of the religious tides on the country and the impact of ‘Saudiazation’ on the workforce.

Talk About Truth
The author writes about his difficulties with Saudi customs and laws, the Islamic prohibitions, the food and alcohol regulations, the frequency of the Friday executions and the annoying dominance of the mutawaa (religious police).

Jones is quick to defend the KSA against misrepresentation and the damaging stereotypes that are propagated especially by international journalists after their fleeting visits. With even-handedness Jones reveals the bugaboos of the Saudis and he tactfully discusses the way they promote prejudice, especially towards America and other western countries.

Talk About Culture
With insight and candor the author writes of living in the expat bubble, accentuated by the invisibility of the Saudis who “were at the periphery of our existence: they were like so much cardamom sprinkled in the coffee, an exotic presence…” (p26)

Jones seeks to break out of this existence by learning the customs, the language and by seeking to engage in meaningful relationships.

If Olaya Street Could Talk is full of Arabic expressions and it provides a helpful spring board to the many other books written on the Kingdom and Arab culture, including the works of Wilfred Thesiger and Edward Said. People living in the KSA or any Arab land will learn much from the author about Arab culture.

As Jones gets to know the Saudis he comes to appreciate the diversity of peoples that make up the Kingdom: “‘Saudi’ was then, and continues to be a fairly loose concern. It is the tribal connections that define the main groups within the country.” (p72)

Talk About Adventure
This book contains the memoirs of the author but it is also a travelogue of adventures most weekends and on holidays with his family and friends. Interestingly Jones states: “Saudi Arabia is one of the very few places on earth where you can really run free and clear—paradoxically in a country that one does not immediately associate with the word ‘freedom’.” (p30)

The book talks of diving in the Red Sea and in Arabian lakes, discovering wildflowers in the desert, surveying the dazzling stars of the night, examining the pre-historic art work and carvings and exploring the petrified forests from an earlier age.

Talk About Education and Entertainment
If Olaya Street Could Talk comes with maps, a bibliography, an index and a helpful glossary of Arabic terms and place names—all items which point up the educational intention and value of this book.

The author writes with interest, humor and with a desire to entertain.

John Paul Jones, If Olaya Street Could Talk: Saudi Arabia: The Heartland of Oil and Islam (Albuquerque, New Mexico: The Taza Press, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 128.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of If Olaya Street Could Talk.

Just Decisions by Alistair Mackenzie and Wayne Kirkland

Just Decisions is a book about ethical decision making in the sphere of work and commerce, in conversation with the resources of the Christian faith.

The book is a welcome addition to the growing body of religious literature that shifts the focus from the worship place to the market place and from Sunday issues to those that preoccupy believers on Monday. The authors state in their introduction that “this book is all about making decisions—ones that are consistent with our Christian faith. Ones that are good, right, just, and appropriate.”

The volume is written by a New Zealand duo, Alistair Mackenzie, a former member of New Zealand’s counterculture and Wayne Kirkland, a former car salesman. An ex-hippie and an ex-car dealer writing about ethics? It sounds paradoxical but this is only one of the amazing features of the book. These two writers not only come out of different backgrounds but they have different personalities and different passions which combine to make for a rich range of insights and a recognition of the diversity of their readers and their decision making dilemmas.

Like models at a fashion parade Just Decisions puts on and off a variety of different styles including a case study of Wayne’s dilemma as a car dealer seeking to do the right thing by his customer, a collection of Biblical principles that are judged to be relevant to work decisions and a discussion of how one brings age old precepts to bear on everyday decisions.

Just Decisions is not a book of answers and formulas from authors trying to respond to ‘Dear Abby’ letters. On the contrary, it encourages readers to think for themselves and to help with this each of the twelve chapters conclude with a section entitled, ‘Questions for Reflection and Discussion’. This book is intended to be used by small groups of people and inherent in this feature is the conviction that thinking through decision making dilemmas with other people—with the Bible in one hand and the diary in the other—is one of the valuable resources that the faith offers.

This book doesn’t promise an easy or quick fix for the second part encourages readers to cherish and live with ‘creative tension’. It examines such tensions between love of God v love of profit, love v competition, people v profit, humility v ego, work v the rest of life and charity v wealth.

The down-to-earth nature of the book is apparent when the authors voice what many might be too afraid to ask: “Does religious faith make any difference to how people make business decisions?” Mackenzie and Kirkland take this question seriously and discuss it openly and in conjunction with research that they and others have conducted.

Just Decisions is an easier book to read than to apply. It is written in ‘thin’ theological language so inexperience in religion should not be a barrier for business people wondering if they would benefit from this book.

The authors sprinkle their discussion with interesting stories about 4WDs, property development and retailing which open up windows to illustrate, inspire and challenge. For instance, check out this story that they cite from the movie, The Big Kahuna, about faith, integrity and industrial lubricants.

There are stories about Wayne the car dealer, Roger the property developer, Trev (sounds like an Aussie) the rug and mat retailer, Raj his Indian supplier…. One starts to wonder why women are not appearing in these anecdotes or don’t they face the decision making dilemmas common to blokes? But, half way through the book (when some women might have lost interest) we are introduced to Barbara the real estate company director, Sally who works in customer service, Kim the training sales person and Jane the lawyer.

Stories from workers in the Bible appear as naturally as workers drawn from Enron, Cadburys, General Motors and some lesser known Kiwi companies. The authors seek to address the dilemmas faced by all types of people including employees as well as CEOs.

Just Decisions is the product of careful research, patient listening and extensive surveying. For instance, it is most instructive to discover the answers to the question that was put to many Christians: “What is it that you struggle with most as a Christian in your work?”

This book deserves to be read, reflected upon over a period of weeks and discussed with others, especially over lunch in the office and workplace.

Alistair Mackenzie and Wayne Kirkland, Just Decisions: Christian Ethics Go to Work (Christchurch, NZ: NavPress, NZ, 2008).

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: The front cover of Just Decisions.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

First the Movie Now the book on The Journey to Mecca

The National reports the celebration of the Haj in a new movie that follows the pilgrimage of Arab explorer, Ibn Battuta and announces the publication of a high-quality book with 2,500+ photographs showing the significance of the annual journey to Mecca.

To read more:

Rym Ghazal, Haj Celebrated on Film and in Print, The National, 8 January 2009.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Journey to Mecca.

Your Mother Doesn’t Work Here by Kerry Miller

Oscar Madison said ‘In the Odd Couple’:

“You leave little notes on my pillow. Told you a-hundred-fifty-eight times I cannot stand little notes on my pillow.”

This book is a collection of little notes left for other people. Notes that lay down the law. Notes to remind. Notes that threaten. Notes that exasperate. Notes that belittle. Notes that create a chuckle.

Kerry Miller, the compiler of this book, first got the idea when he received pointed notes from his Grandma and then from his housemates. He started collecting the notes, created a web site and invited contributions. Miller was amazed at the avalanche of notes he received and he started to consider the role of the note in modern society. This book is a compilation of the best or the worst?

When you read this book think about what these notes reveal about the note writer, the note reader and their relationships. So many are written by landlords, housemates and neighbors so take note! Many of them are expressions of passive-aggression, some represent the unleashing of pent up anger and most are marked with exclamations. A few are clever, many represent the spewing forth of verbal garbage while others are designed to show up people’s faults to the world like the huge not-so-subtle sign placed by a landlord on the front of his rental property which read, “BOB, PAY YOUR RENT.”

The subtitle of the book offers the compiler’s summary: ‘Painfully Polite and Hilariously Hostile Notes.’ And like cigarette packets this book comes with a warning: ‘Contains sugarcoated anger’.

While Oscar Madison detested notes left on his pillow it is intriguing and sometimes instructive to see the many places where notes are left:

On the car windscreen: “Hello, I just wanted to personally thank you for taking up two parking spaces. Have a great day! Your neighbor.”

On the microwave: “For the love of God. STOP BURNING THE POPCORN.”

On the toilet (quite a popular location): “FLUSH this toilet or Die.” [Noah]

This is a book with a difference. A collection of notes. A notebook. It offers plenty of ideas and the reading and the writing will possibly be a cheap form of therapy.

Kerry Miller, Your Mother Doesn’t Work Here (London: HarperCollins, 2008).

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: One of the notes that prompts the title of the collection.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

The White Tiger addresses the changing face of India, particularly all that is typified in the emergence of Bangalore as the outsourcing capital of the world, the centre for start-ups and the magnet for would-be entrepreneurs.

This book penetrates the bowing and scraping and the namasting to reveal the culture of caste and the snare of corruption. It is written in the first person as a series of letters to an international leader about to visit India. This novel is an attempt to prepare and educate (like the statutory warning on a cigarette packet) the leader for an experience of the real India. This tactic is typical of the Bangalorean bluster and bravado but from a literary perspective it is weak and unconvincing.

The author, Aravind Adiga, was born in India and later lived in the country of his birth, working as a foreign correspondent for Time magazine. Adiga was raised in Australia and has undertaken study in the USA and the UK. This has given him a distance from his native country, a heightened ability in crap detection and a prophetic courage. In this his first novel, Adiga accurately captures the burps, the farts, the spitting and the squatting of everyday India.

What begins as a witty yarn about the narrator’s life story becomes a well-executed exposé of the injustice that pervades Indian society and the arse-licking that seems necessary to succeed in the culture. Hindi films, brothels, religions, black market business are all addressed and become the targets of Adiga’s pointed pen. There are no sacred cows in The White Tiger.

The ‘white tiger’ motif is used to describe the narrator’s rise from servant status, the emancipation from his caste and his rise to the position of master. It is also an apt image with which to illustrate Adiga’s rare literary skill which is at the same time attractive and acerbic, charming and cutting, smooth and savage.

The entrepreneur writer loves to put his philosophy into a nutshell:

“The road is a jungle, get it? A good driver must roar to get ahead on it.” (p57)
“The bigger your belly—the further you get on in life.” (p64)
“There are only two destinies—eat or get eaten up.” (p64) And to sum them all up:
“Let animals live like animals; let humans live like humans. That’s my whole philosophy in a sentence.” (p276)

Adiga is adept at quaint but telling one-liners like these:

“I am not an original thinker but I am an original listener.” (p77)
“Is there any hatred more than the hatred of No. 1 servant by No.2?” (p77)

The White Tiger is a challenging book to be read by Indians, particularly politicians and business leaders and those who want to understand the belly as well as the face of India.

This Booker Prize (2008) winning book will be read with great profit by leaders in any culture as it raises the searching questions about how many people got kicked or killed on your way to the top.

Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger (London: Atlantic Books, 2008).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 53.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Two front covers of The White Tiger.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Story of Barack Obama in Audio

Dale Dougherty reports:

I've been listening to the audiobook, Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama, which has the additional benefit of being read by the author. Obama's baritone has become a familiar voice in my head. What might surprise some people, beyond Obama's ability as a writer and storyteller, is that each of his characters becomes a distinct voice that he brings alive, not just in his writing but even more so in this audiobook. They come alive for us because they are so alive to him.

Read Dale’s entire review about the extra audio dimension to Obama’s book at:
Obama’s Voices, Boing Boing, 28 November 2008.

A review of Dreams from My Father is at this link.

A review of The Audacity of Hope is at this link.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Dreams from My Father.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

To Be Continued
This book follows on where Dreams from My Father left off and is concerned with why Barack Obama got into politics, how he got into the Illinois legislature and what makes him a Democrat.

Different Strokes
While this book still has an autobiographical flavor, The Audacity of Hope offers pointers for ‘a new kind of politics’ and how a process might commence for change. It does not claim to be a detailed manifesto but rather an outline of the broad strokes on pressing policies.

For anyone wondering how Obama operates and the style of politics to which he aims, this book provides the parameters, the principles, the values and his passions. It expresses his concern to leave behind the ‘either/or’ thinking, the partisan bickering, the politics of confrontation and to press towards the politics of bridge-building, the balance between idealism and realism and the clear identification of what government can do and what should be left to others.

One discovers in these pages many of the Obama lines like “spreading the wealth around” that were beamed around the world on the air waves during the Presidential campaign. What is illuminating is to read these statements in context and to realize that they are neither shibboleths nor mere sound bytes but ideas that stem from a well thought out philosophy of beliefs and affirmations about politics.

The chief areas upon which Obama reflects are captured by the chapter headings:

1. Republicans and Democrats
2. Values
3. Constitution
4. Politics
5. Opportunity
6. Faith
7. Race
8. The World Beyond our Borders
9. Family

What is revealed in The Audacity of Hope is a sense of what is important to the author, how he weighs up competing interests and what he considers to be priorities for investment in areas such as education, science and technology, energy and health.

Literary Skill
Legendary novelist, Toni Morrison, has affirmed Barack Obama’s writing skill and praised his ‘creative imagination’. Reflecting on Dreams from My Father Morrison says (7 November 2008), “I was astonished by his ability to write, to think, to reflect, to learn and turn a good phrase. I was very impressed. This was not a normal political biography.” These qualities are also evident in The Audacity of Hope. Look at Obama’s poetic style and imagery in these lines:

“We need a new kind of politics, one that can excavate and build upon those shared understandings that pull us together as Americans.” (p9)

“The country’s tectonic plates have shifted.” (p28)

“Democracy is not a house to be built but a conversation to be had.” (p92)

“My time with them [people attending his town hall meetings] is like a dip in a cold stream. I feel cleansed afterwards, glad for the work I have chosen.” (p102)

In describing his wife, he writes about her “lived-in beauty of the mother and busy professional.” (p327)

The picture that emerges of the author is of a person who listens to his people, an empathetic leader, one who recognizes how his biography shapes his convictions, a thinker whose politics are informed by the rich perspectives of history and are broadened by his international experience and an innovator who seeks to discover new ways to rally people at the grassroots and keep engaging them in conversation.

The tone of this book is characterized by appreciation to people who have influenced and encouraged him, notably “the women who raised me”—his maternal grandmother and his mother, to whom this book is dedicated. The chapter on ‘Family’ is the most personal of all the chapters as Barack Obama reveals many glimpses into the personality of Michelle, how they met, what they argue about and how they weather the challenge of being a ‘juggler family’. (p336) We also get windows into the ways that Barack is learning from his daughters, Malia and Sasha, the way they put their Daddy into place and their early calls for a puppy!

The book is marked by humility as the author is quick to identify his flaws, admit his mistakes, speak about his envy and voice his doubts. He understands the nature of ambition, the fears of the politician and the lure of status and power.

Obama’s words are measured and while confessing that he is angry about the “politics that favors the wealthy and powerful over average Americans” he never rants but one wonders whether he is too restrained. Sometimes one longs for more righteous indignation to burn and for the pages to catch fire.

As the title indicates, The Audacity of Hope is realistic about the challenges of change but overwhelmingly this book strike the notes of courage and hope.

For any American thinking of a career in politics The Audacity of Hope gives a wonderful orientation. It spells out many cardinal rules of politics, it is an eye opener to the challenges and costs of politics to the politician and the politician’s family and it outlines the chief skills that are required for effective public service.

For anyone intrigued with the American political process and matters to do with electoral campaigns, constitutions, political parties, the Congress, Senate and filibusters, this book is a political primer.

It is remarkable how the author (and former law professor) can write so interestingly and so respectfully about dry and technical matters such as a constitution, about which one person said they are ‘rules by which the dead control the living’.

Who is Barack Obama?
Admirers and opponents who ask the question, ‘Who is Barack Obama?’ will find their question well answered by reading Dreams of My Father and The Audacity of Hope.

Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (Edinburgh, London, New York, Melbourne: Canongate, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 45.00.

Barack Obama’s first book, Dreams of My Father, is reviewed at this link.

A note on the popularity of Obama’s books.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Audacity of Hope.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Teach Yourself Gulf Arabic

Great Interest
A frequently Googled question in the UAE and Gulf region seeks information about resources and courses to help people learn Arabic. Such interest highlights the relevance of this resource, ‘Teach Yourself Gulf Arabic’.

Gulf Arabic
This book teaches ‘Gulf Arabic’, the spoken Arabic dialect of Gulf countries—Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE and Oman. It is also close to the dialect of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and southern Iraq.

This is not a book that teaches standard or literary Arabic which is covered in the same series of books in the companion volume entitled, ‘Teach Yourself Arabic’.

The recognition that there is a Gulf Arabic can dampen the enthusiasm of newcomers to the Gulf especially when they are told that the Arabic they learn in these parts will not be well understood in other parts of the Arabic-speaking world. However, the difference may well compare to the various strains and idioms that one hears when travelling through the diverse English-speaking world.

The authors of this resource, Jack Smart and Frances Altorfer, point out that there is also present in Gulf countries a ‘pidgin’ Arabic which is used mainly in conversation between Arabs and expatriate workers.

This book is divided into 14 chapters or units bearing these everyday titles:

1. How to say Hello!
2. Where is…?
3. The telephone number is…
4. What time is it?
5. How much is this?
6. Are you hungry?
7. The family.
8. In the hotel.
9. Interests and holidays.
10. The history of the Arabs
11. Health.
12. Official procedures e.g. changing money, sending mail etc.
13 Where to?
14. In the house.

Each unit contains dialogues, some questions to check comprehension, a repetition of key words and phrases, notes which explain how the language works in a conversation and some useful cultural tips about the life of Arabs in the Gulf.

The book comes with audio assistance, grammar exercises and a key to confirm whether the exercises have been answered correctly.

The chief words are presented in each chapter in both Arabic script and transliteration. A simple account of the Arabic alphabet is given to help readers read road signs and shop names.

This 220-page course book comes with a useful section to aid in pronunciation especially in making the sounds that don’t appear in English but in some other languages and those difficult sounds that are unique to Arabic.

The vocabulary, like the chapter headings, helpfully relates to the basic necessities and actions of everyday life.

I have observed in another review that many Arabic dictionaries do not include a section from English words to Arabic. This book, however, contains 23 pages of words from English to Arabic as well as a similar number in the other direction.

In a strict sense this resource is not a ‘Teach Yourself’ book, for the audio on CD records the voices of men and women who pronounce the words and phrases and soon seem to be like personal tutors.

The instructions say that “listening is the first step to learning a language; [so] don’t be disheartened if you don’t always understand every word—picking out the gist of what is said is the key.”

If anything the audio moves too fast and without sufficient repetition but thankfully the CD players or iTunes you will use have a backwards button and going over the lessons again is essential for mastery.

The audio component is particularly useful for demonstrating the regional differences in pronunciation from countries such as Oman or Iraq.

The two CDs in this resource illustrate the substantial nature of this course.

At first glance one might think the book is too detailed and dense but further delving indicates that it is most user-friendly. This is illustrated by such things as a sprinkling of Arabic proverbs throughout the book e.g. “The daughter of a duck is a good swimmer (which is a variation of the English proverb, ‘Like father, like son’). The book contains many pictures that break up the text e.g. a sign of a McDonald’s restaurant is included as an exercise with students being asked to pick out the long vowels. A third example of creativity is the number of short statements about Arabic culture e.g. One article deals with perfumes in the Gulf Arabic home, some common resins and woods that are burned and the various uses of the incense burner which is common in Gulf homes and shops.

Aim of ‘Teach Yourself Gulf Arabic’
This resource covers the basics for anyone who wants to learn greetings and the numbers which one hears in any Gulf airport when airline flights are announced. But ‘Teach Yourself Gulf Arabic’ might lure people into going deeper and if so, it provides the tools for those who wish to advance to a higher standard of knowledge and competence in communication in a range of situations.

Jack Smart and Frances Altorfer, Teach Yourself Gulf Arabic (London: Hodder Education, 1999, 2003)

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 225.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Teach Yourself Gulf Arabic which contains a 220-page course book and 2 audio CDs.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Nourishing the Mind through Reading Books

Lubna Qassim writes (18 November 2008) in The National about building a world, through the reading of books.

Here are some excerpts:

“The best way to feed and exercise the mind is to give it a concentrated dose of stimulus. Nothing, in my opinion, does that better than a good book. We must discipline ourselves to nourish this practice among ourselves – but more importantly nourish and encourage the habit among our youth.”

“Reading is not only about academic success, it is also one of the most pleasant and relaxing ways of passing the time that I know. Reading allows me to escape to another zone, and on many occasions has inspired me with ideas. Although I have learnt a lot about life through travelling and meeting people of different cultures, nothing can equate with the knowledge I have acquired about the world through books without travelling an inch from my room.”

“I was recently amazed by the exciting initiative launched by Dubai Cares to ask students to read one million books in two weeks. Dubai Cares beautifully translates Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid’s vision to transform underprivileged societies of other parts of the world, but this reading scheme has the additional benefit of introducing children here to the joys and rewards of reading.”

To read the entire article:

Lubna Qassim, To build a world, begin with a book at bedtime, The National, 17 November 2008.

Dr Geoff Pound

Monday, November 17, 2008

Reporting America by Alistair Cooke

Celebratory Volume
This beautifully presented book that is published on the centenary of the birth of Alistair Cooke will please the thousands around the world who have delighted in his weekly Letter from America. In addition to a superb selection of scripts the elegance of this book is enhanced by the photographs (black and white, and colored), the cartoons, the different fonts and the attractive layout.

Reporting America contains approximately ninety of Alistair Cooke’s dispatches to the Guardian and the BBC from 1946 to 2004. The articles and talks are grouped chronologically with Cooke’s daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge, providing a general introduction and commentaries for each decade. In these introductions Kittredge offers an interesting perspective on the stages of her father’s literary career (e.g. the ‘crunch years’ of the 1960s or his ‘blossoming’ in the 1970s).

Describing Alistair Cooke
Kittredge describes her father as a man of focus, ambition, intelligence and discipline who exuded a sense of vitality wherever he went. His daughter reveals many personal details about her ‘Daddy’—Alistair Cooke the father, the husband, what he did for recreation, his daily rhythm, his temperament, his fears, his medical problems and how the great events of America and the dramas in his family affected him.

Her observations of America’s most loved observer make for a rich treasury, not only of the nation’s significant events and trends in the second half of the twentieth century but of the Writer and the Voice. This massive volume reinforces the magnitude of Cooke’s contribution—reporting on 58 years of US life, totaling 2,869 broadcasts in the longest running radio series in broadcast history. Susan Cooke Kittredge reveals the secret of her father’s wisdom and the inspiration for his work.

I am a Reporter
A big part of Cooke’s skill and popularity was due to his clear idea of who he was and what was his job. When he was asked about his task he would give a variation of this reply:

“I am a reporter of the facts and the feelings that go into the American life I happen to observe. I mention ‘the feelings’ if only to stress a belief that there is no such thing as an objective reporter. But the way to be as fair as possible is to notice that no fact of human life comes to you uncoloured by what people feel it means.” (pi)

Acknowledging the limits of objectivity, committing himself to put aside preconceived notions and his aversion to rush to a premature judgment were important convictions that shaped Cooke’s practice and literary style.

Believing that he was ‘a reporter’ gave to Cooke a certain freedom from the expectations of people as evidenced in this statement:

“I was urged to deliver some missionary message. But missions are for bishops. I am a reporter. And I can’t say where America is going. I am a hopeless prophet. One book I will never write is: Whither America?” (p317)

Grasping the Nettle
One might think that a commitment to objectivity and fairness could result in writing that was bland and lacking in teeth. But Cooke could open his broadcast with a broadside about “the heartless contradiction between American ideals and the general willingness to accept them in action.” (p39). He used appropriate sarcasm to describe the long prayers at President Kennedy’s Inauguration by the clerics “who always prolong their finest hour by turning these supplications into their own variation of the inaugural address.” (p89-90) Alistair Cooke was not averse to pricking the bubble of American jingoism when on the eve of the first moon launch he wrote, “For days and nights, we have been reading the most inflated prose that even Americans can write.” (p177)

Alistair Cooke was courageous and he tackled controversial issues when they were in the news and when they concerned the American people. He was able to ‘grasp the nettle’, present both sides of the issue, distill the essence with an amazing economy of words and leave his listeners to make their judgment. Broadcasts entitled ‘A Catholic as Candidate?’ and ‘Was Saddam a Threat or Not?’ illustrate Cooke’s willingness to address the issues that were gnawing away in the public mind.

The Personal Touch
Reporting with objectivity did not mean an omission of the personal because Cooke sparingly dropped in details of what he was doing. Expressing his exhilaration on a crystalline New York day in January would have helped his listeners to visualize the scene as they huddled around the wireless in their living rooms in England.

Reporting America contains numerous articles that illustrate Cooke’s mastery of description, his use of the pithy introduction and the telling conclusion. His enjoyment of words and skill as a wordsmith is evident on every page. During the Cuban missile crisis he wrote about “calculating the arithmetic of tyranny” (p76), upon the death of Marilyn Munroe he described her as “a straw on the ocean of her compulsions,” (p106) and, in speaking about the recovery mission that greeted John Glenn’s space capsule as it splashed into the ocean Cooke writes: “The helicopters went off like flying lobsters.” (p101)

Working the Angles
Many of the titles of Cooke’s letters reveal the person-centeredness of his writing as he addressed the subject of ‘Harry S Truman’, ‘Joe Louis’, ‘Humphrey Bogart’, ‘Walt Disney’ or ‘Rosa Parks’. The epistolary genre contributed a personal dimension to his writing and Cooke often sounded like a preacher opening his heart to an adoring congregation that waited each week for his words as they gathered by the miracle of the air waves. Cooke had the ability to see a fascinating angle as evident in the titles, ‘A Mule Cortège’ (Martin Luther King’s funeral), ‘Ronald Reagan vs. Darth Vader and ‘Gorbachev and Reagan Playing Chess’.

Interpreter of His Times
Reporting America reveals the author as a supreme interpreter of the times in which he was living and one who could tell the secrets in the minds of his people. Cooke was a glassblower who knew the molten moment and a doctor with his hand on the American pulse. His longevity and weekly discipline sharpened his ability to understand the ‘cultural tides’ but his encyclopedic knowledge of history (his daughter called him the ‘original Google’) and his training in literature helped him to bring perspective and convey the essence of his times. Like Martial, the Roman poet that he quotes, Alistair Cooke exhibited a determination about his craft: “These are my times and I must know them.” (p358)

Attentive to His Weaknesses
While increasingly becoming an assured interpreter Cooke never comes across as a know-it-all. He is swift to admit his ignorance about nuclear reactors, the process of lawmaking in the American Congress or the issues to do with hand-gun laws.

Cooke fits his own definition of a professional as “someone who can do his best work when he doesn’t feel like it.” (p15) He sometimes alludes to his state of bewilderment, his grief or his shock at a national calamity. Alistair Cooke is at his best when he is describing the pain of the American people from his own stance of weakness and vulnerability. See how this quality is evident in the conclusion to his letter describing the horrific explosion of the Challenger space shuttle and the sight of the parents of astronaut Christa McAuliffe:

“To me, when the nightmare sharpness of the horror has blessedly blurred with time, there will be, I’m afraid, one picture that will retain its piercing clarity. It is the picture of an inquisitive, innocent middle-aged woman and her affable, granity husband—Christa McAuliffe’s parents—craning their necks and squinting into the Florida sky, and watching the sudden fireball and looking a little puzzled as first-time spectators might, as if this were part of the show, part of the unexpected magic.” (p305)

Alistair Cooke, Reporting America: The Life of the Nation 1946-2004 (London: Allen Lane, Penguin, 2008).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 188.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Reporting America.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel García Márquez

Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel Prize winning author reveals the plot of this novel with these attention-grabbing opening lines:

“The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a wild love with an adolescent virgin.”

The story of this old newspaper columnist continues with the assistance of a madam who grants him his libertine birthday gift, after his long tradition of purchasing women for sexual pleasure.

As his opening gambit illustrates, Márquez is a master of shock, surprise and suspense. He is skillfully attuned to pace which he is able to build, maintain and slow when the drama requires. The author writes with grace, economy, elegance and poetry. Observe his mastery in describing events and emotional excitement after he undresses:

“A warm current traveled up my veins and my slow, retired animal woke from its long sleep.” (p28)

The novel could be said to be about an old guy trying to prove his virility but it is about attempting to allow newness to enter and pulsate in an old life. The book sets forth a “glorification of old age” rather than presenting “the usual lament for the years that were gone.” (p8)

Márquez writes of the movement into old age and the different way that the person growing old sees from the inside while others are noticing signs from the outside. (p9) Is it true that “age isn’t how old you are but how old you feel?” (p60) And is there a better way to measure one’s life than by counting the years?

Memories of My Melancholy Whores is about looking at old age as a sphere of new possibilities. The narrator reflects with resolution:

“Still, when I woke alive in the first morning of my nineties in the happy bed of Delgadina, I was transfixed by the agreeable idea that life was not something that passes by like Heraclitus’ ever-changing river but a unique opportunity to turn over on the grill and keep broiling on the other side for another ninety years.” (p108)

The author raises the issues of growing old, such as knowing the time when it is best for this ninety-year old editor to lay down his pen. It also explores the matter of new pursuits that senior adults might take up as this writer experiments in reading, music and the education of training a cat. In taking up new activities Márquez is attentive to the ways these affect his relationships, his emotions, his personality and his writing.

Without letting the cat out of the bag this book is about a new way of seeing and a new way of living and experiencing “real life.” (p115) It is realizing that we are never too old to grow in relationships, love, happiness, self-awareness and learning and discovering that when this happens on the inside we may appear different on the outside.

Márquez tests the thesis that “sex is the consolation you have when you can’t have love” (p69) and he longs to experience the wonder of sex in the context of love.

This short novel is seamlessly translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman and it is multi-layered. This book is a treat that readers will want to reread and savor on each birthday as a reflection on life and the gift of 'real life'.

Gabriel García Márquez, Memories of My Melancholy Whores (New York: Vintage, 2006). The title in Spanish is Memoria De Mis Putas Tristes.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Memories of My Melancholy Whores.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Obama Books Running Off the Shelves

UAE Daily News reports:

Barack Obama is the hottest name in publishing.

On the weekend after he became the country's first black president-elect, Obama's "The Audacity of Hope" and "Dreams from My Father," both already million sellers, ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on and Barnes &

Both hardcover and paperback editions of "Audacity of Hope" were out of stock Sunday on Amazon.

Sales are up even in Arizona, home state of Obama's Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain.

"People are generally much happier this week than they were last week," Gayle Shanks, co-owner of the Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, said Sunday.

Demand also has surged for "Change We Can Believe In," a collection of Obama's speeches and policy proposals that had been selling modestly; for "Barack Obama in His Own Words" and for such works about him as "Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope," a children's book by Nikki Grimes, and Robert Kuttner's "Obama's Challenge," a call for a sweeping, progressive economic agenda.

Where to Begin With Barack
Check out this review of Barack Obama’s first book, Dreams of My Father. This review gives the cost of the book at Magrudy’s Book Shops in the UAE.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Two books by Barack Obama.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Networking Pocketbook by Jon Warner

This 100 page pocketbook on Networking is described as ‘a pocketful of tips, tools and techniques to build and maintain successful relationships that will enhance your professional and private life’.

It is one of a series of over 100 pocketbooks looking at appraisals and balance sheets to time management and vocal skills.

Being part of the ‘Management Pocketbook’ series, it examines the art of networking primarily as a way of enhancing one’s business. However, the principles and tips will often have an application to other forms of networking such as bringing people together who are seeking friendship, those who have an interest in growing petunias or lovers of Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

The author, Jon Warner has had twenty years experience as a manager in the UK, Europe, USA and Australia so his ideas have a wide application, at least in the western world. The size of a pocketbook limits the range of subjects that it is possible to address but this book would be enhanced by recognizing the different way that cultural contexts like the UAE or South Korea might affect the dynamic of networking.

Warner’s first section defines the new features of networking as distinct from more traditional forms of relating in groups. He recognizes that networking is an art that must be learned. This book, therefore, is a good introduction to people and organizations wanting to begin their learning about networking. In 100 pages Warner gives substance without getting bogged down in the clutter of detail and he concludes with references for readers wanting to go deeper.

The book progresses with ease through the different stages in networking—from learning to investing, nurturing and keeping the relationships. This Networking Pocketbook is motivational as well as educational and the illustrations by Phil Hailstone are apt and often amusing.

The word ‘networking’ is a slippery term but Warner focuses on networking as the art of relationship building—a ‘long term commitment to knowing more about yourself and others, and what you may be able to do together that you couldn’t do (or couldn’t do as well) alone’. (p3) With useful repetition Warner highlights this point later in the book with this statement: “Effective networking is more about what you can offer than what you can get from meeting with other people.” (p57)

Warner differentiates the various dispositions that people have towards relationships and specifically networking. He describes the traits of the ‘loner’, the ‘socializer’, the ‘user’ and the ‘builder’. In encouraging readers to develop the qualities of the ‘builder’ Warner says that such a person ‘takes a long-term perspective on relationships with others and thinks more about what he or she can give or offer, than about the return.” (p20) The book devotes attention to the core processes of networking and offers specific things and personal attitudes one can foster to become an effective networker.

Some of the spheres and strategies for networking that are cited include attendance at meetings, and the use of the business card, the telephone and email. One of the deficiencies of this book that was first published in 2000 and reprinted (but not updated) most years since this date up to 2005, is the absence of any reference to the new Internet networking platforms such as Facebook and MySpace. These communities have revolutionized the way people connect and do business. These new and interactive meeting places enhance the capacity for networking and take it to a new level. They do not contradict the principles of this book but any update of this useful primer might well address the way that the Internet can enhance the many forms of networking.

Jon Warner, Networking Pocketbook (Alresford, UK or Stylus Publishing, Sterling VA, USA: Management Pocketbooks, 2000).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 24.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Networking Pocketbook.