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.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Goodword English Arabic Dictionary

Dr Johnson, the author and lexicographer, once said, “Dictionaries are like watches, the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.”

While this English Arabic dictionary by lexicographer, Mohd Harun Rashid is like Johnson’s watch, here are some good things going for this version and some areas where it could do with improvement.

Many English Arabic dictionaries only have the Arabic script but this dictionary comes also with the Arabic words transliterated in English letters, pointed with symbols to denote a long or short sound and marks to alert readers to the difficult sound of a hamza or ain (strong guttural sound). For instance, the word ‘dictionary’ is transliterated as mu ‘jam, qāmūs.

This dictionary is small (A5 in size) and as such it is easy to carry around without feel that you are lugging a London telephone dictionary.

The Goodword dictionary is substantial containing 20,000+ words and phrases. It has an extensive number of scientific words (e.g. oxygenize, nitrogen, milliliter, morphine and glycerine), academic terms (e.g. inverted commas, earth science and semicolon) and political words (e.g. Senate, Congress and Secretary of State).

A big part of this dictionary’s usefulness is in its versatility. Idiomatic expressions are included—words such as hoity-toity, hocus-pocus, hobby-horse, hogwash and hullabaloo.

While not being exhaustive, words come in many variations e.g. swim (v), swim (n), swimmer (n), swimmingly (adv.), swimming pool, swimming-suit (n).

As Arabic vowels play an important role in the pronunciation of Arabic it is good to see Arabic words in this dictionary with vowels. This makes it helpful for beginners seeking to give the correct pronunciation.

This 824 page dictionary is amazingly cheap—only Dh27.00!

It would be good to also have Arabic to English included in the one volume (although this would double the size of the volume!)

The Arabic script is very small thus making it difficult for beginners (and those whose sight is dim) to identify the letters.

Samuel Johnson was right. Dictionaries are like watches.

Mohd Harun Rashid, Goodword English Arabic Dictionary (New Delhi: Goodword, 2006, 2008).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 27.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: A sample of the text from the Goodword English Arabic Dictionary. Click to enlarge.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron

Shadow of the Silk Road traces Colin Thubron’s journey along the ancient trade route from China, across the mountains of Central Asia, northern Afghanistan, Iran and southern Turkey.

By taxi, bus and camel Thubron records his solo expedition covering 7,000 miles in eight months.

This book encourages readers to think about why they travel and how they decide on a travel destination. Listen to London-based travel writer, Colin Thubron, share his thoughts:

“Sometimes a journey arises out of hope and instinct, the heady conviction, as your fingers travel along the map: Yes, here and here…and here. These are the nerve-ends of the world…”

“A hundred reasons clamour for your going. You go to touch on human identities, to people an empty map. You have a notion that this is the world’s heart. You go to encounter the protean shapes of faith. You go because you are still young and crave excitement, the crunch of your boots in the dust; you go because you are old and need to understand something before it’s too late. You go to see what will happen.” (p2-3)

Through his travel descriptions and thoughts Thubron highlights the things that are valuable about travel. For instance, his observation of ‘The Silk Road’ (a nineteenth century term) he identifies some ways that travel may shape, broaden and educate us:

“It [the Silk Road] was not a single road at all, but a shifting fretwork of arteries and veins, laid to the Mediterranean.” (p24)

And later some corresponding thoughts in these exquisite words:

“To follow a road is to follow diversity: a flow of interlocked voices, arguing, in a cloud of dust.” (p31)

With courage, curiosity and respect Thubron demonstrates how to travel as a pilgrim rather than as a tourist. He writes with a compassionate eye towards groups of people that are persecuted for their race, faith or sexuality.

The style of Shadow of the Silk Road is poetic and imaginative. The author synthesizes a vast body of historical research and presents it in a fascinating and amusing manner. He writes not only about the invention of silk but the creation of paper, printing, gunpowder, drive-belts, the mechanical clock, the spinning wheel and the equine harness.

The reader is led from the ancient past to contemporary accounts as the author views the ruins and observes monuments. He blends oral history, contemporary stories and his observation of issues as modern as the impact of SARS. Above all Thubron has harvested the legends, songs, poetry and prayers from a myriad of cultures and religions that he encounters in records and from people along the way.

Thubron’s writing is immediate, descriptive and perhaps, at times too detailed. The book records people and places that he encounters but also many vivid paragraphs that begin with the words, “I imagined…” Thubron captures the sights, the sounds, the songs and the smell of the Silk Road. He writes, for instance, of “the cold touch of silk in his hands.” (p30) Enjoy this cameo of camels having a lunch break:

“The camels were busy chewing the thatch from the watchman’s hut. Their prehistoric heads on bald necks, and their long double eye lashes, proof against sandstorms, gave them the look of seductive reptiles. As we mounted, they stooped forward with odd whimpering honks, then lurched angrily to their feet.” (p121)

With his trademark honesty Thubron admits his fear:

“I’m afraid of nothing happening, of experiencing nothing. This is what the modern traveler [and travel writer?] fears (forgive me). Emptiness. Then you hear only yourself.” (p25)

Thubron needn’t have feared for his experience of people and places is rich. He hears others but he also hears and records his own thoughts and feelings.

The Shadow of the Silk Road is much more than a travel book. It comes with maps, timelines and an index. This is a book that makes you check out some airfares and start packing your bag.

Colin Thubron, Shadow of the Silk Road (London: Vintage, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 63.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front covers of various editions of Shadow of the Silk Road.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Hercules by Jeanette Winterson

This short book by Jeanette Winterson is part of The Myths series in which contemporary writers are commissioned to retell the ageless myths in contemporary ways.

Winterson takes the Greek myth of Atlas whose punishment was to shoulder the weight of the world apart from the brief relief given by Hercules when he took a turn with the globe.

The author writes with gusto and is eager to retell the story “that through the noisy din of life other voices might be heard, speaking of the life and the soul’s journey.” (pxvi)

This is a fresh retelling of a familiar story in which with freedom and license Winterson adds perspectives and conversation, questions and eroticism that will grip twenty-first century readers. The author speaks to the craving of contemporary readers:

“Right now, human beings as a mass have a gruesome appetite for what they call ‘real’, whether it’s Reality TV or the kind of plodding fiction that only works as low-grade documentary, or at the better end, the factual programmes and biographies and ‘true life’ accounts that occupy the space where imagination used to sit.” (pxv)

Winterson successfully satisfies this appetite by telling the story in a way that is real and which connects with everyday yearnings of modern people.

This book feels the load of Atlas by playing on the motif of ‘weight’. Winterson reveals some of the heaviest weights that people carry—the burdens of loneliness, tradition, freedom and choice.

Adopting the imagery of soil and stone, Winterson is not confined by chronos and moves freely between the strata of the Greeks to the level of the readers with links into the sediment of her personal story.

The myth is told in the first person—through the eyes and from the perspective of Atlas but with the additional emphasis and comments of the writer. However, at the third quarter of the story, Winterson gets autobiographical, telling how the myth connects with her life. She foreshadows this in the introduction, admitting that her aim is more for authenticity than autobiography:

“The writer must fire herself through the text, be the molten stuff that welds together disparate elements. I believe there is always exposure, vulnerability, in the writing process, which is not to say it is either confessional or memoir. Simply, it is real.” (pxv)

The transition from Atlas to Winterson is surprisingly clunky. While readers will enjoy the exposure and appreciate the transparency of the storyteller one wonders how essential or helpful this direction is to the theme and the aim of the book. Is the storyteller’s disclosure intended to serve as a model to help readers forge their connection with the story? This is not a big problem but one is left musing whether Winterson is offering an unnecessary application, like interpreting a parable or explaining a joke.

Winterson is thoughtful, playful, imaginative, and she sustains interest throughout the story. Her humour and enjoyment for pushing the boundaries is most apparent when Hercules gets the hots for ‘drop dead gorgeous’ Hera, to such an extent that “his prick kept filling and deflating like a pair of fire bellows.” (p41)

This book provokes and like all good stories it has a twist in its tail with the storyteller possessing many things up her sleeve that at any moment can appear and knock you flat.

Jeanette Winterson, Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Hercules (Edinburgh, New York, Melbourne: Canongate, 2005).

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

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Hercules; Jeanette Winterson.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Road Home by Rose Tremain

This is the story of a journey made by Lev from the poverty and sameness of Eastern Europe to England in search of work and wealth. It is a journey of grief as Lev seeks to shed the crippling loss of his dead wife in search of healing and solace.

Tremain traces the journey of a migrant—an ‘economic migrant’ not an ‘asylum seeker’—who mentally lives in two worlds, amid grief and hospitality and one who experiences a generosity of welcome shadowed by loneliness, being different and disconnection. With acute observation the author paints pictures of the migrant—the aimless walking, the worry of having the right denomination of money, the exhaustion of doing everything in another language, the power of smoking to mask hunger pangs and falling asleep with the companionship of a vodka bottle. (p21)

The Road Home portrays the new migrant’s dogged determination to keep walking on the road without falling:

“Homelessness, hunger, these things just had to be borne for a while Lev told himself.” (p43)

Further down the migrant’s road:

“Then, before the cigarette was gone Lev knew that he was falling….falling helplessly into sleep. He had time to reach out, to extinguish the cigarette, and then he surrendered to the long fall. All he understood was that he had to try to rise up, to get free of his wooden cross, to resume his road.” (p44-45)

The Road Home is a journey of memory. The book reveals the crippling and haunting power of painful memories. It also pictures the positive sides of memory—how randomly and spontaneously places on the journey can return to thrill and people formerly encountered can appear and call in surprising and beneficial ways.

This book graphs the journey of a dream. It reveals the capacity of a dream to resurrect and give a firm footing. Lev develops what he calls his ‘Great Idea’ which urges him forward on the road as the details are disclosed and the dimensions worked out. Yet there is always a realistic ambivalence as Lev wonders if his ‘Great Idea’ has substance or whether he is merely “gawping at shadows.” (p296)

Through achieving targets and milestones on the journey Lev becomes hopeful, enthusiastic and filled with ardor for his project. Whether the dream materializes or not Lev learns that a great dream gives something to cling to and helps to quell his tormenting memories. Later and looking back, he is able to testify that “dreams are what’s got me by!” (p348)

Lev draws sustenance for the journey from other sources. Reading the Shakespearean play, Hamlet, he sees some parallels in his own life and he comes to affirm that “Words written long, long ago could travel beside you, and help you at moments when you could no longer see the road.” (p313)

Rose Tremain writes with an effortless style in descriptions that are captivatingly detailed and often humorous. In introducing Lydia, a fellow-traveler to “a separate future in the unknown city” of London, the author describes her as “a contained person with moles like splashes of mud on her face.” Later Lydia is referred to as the “mole-flecked woman” with Lev studying “her face with its martyrdom of moles.” (p6)

Like a talented musician, Tremain uses words and phrases to play a wide range of emotions. She expresses the searing loneliness of the migrant, the inadequacy in a new culture, the unbearable abandonment and the volcanic rage that burns away many opportunities. In particular, the author is masterful when picturing Lev’s sense of losing touch with where he was, the instability of a migrant’s life and the dread that mars normality by the thought that a crushing catastrophe is just around the corner. Her clever arrangement reveal how tiredness, bad dreams, black thoughts and the feeling of being adrift all contribute to a inescapable blanket of heaviness and misery. The different themes of love are described from the love that is poisoned by unfaithfulness to the innocent and uncomplicated love of a liaison.

Rose Tremain, The Road Home (London: Vintage Books, 2008).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 60.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Road Home.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

This octave of short stories by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Jhumpa Lahiri, is connected by its focus on Indians who move from the sub-continent to different countries. The book states what many have observed, that “Indians are everywhere these days.” But how do they survive and do they succeed?

This book examines Nathaniel Hawthorne’s thesis penned in The Custom-House and from which Lahiri obtained her title:

“Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.”

Lahiri does not swallow Hawthorne’s argument hook, line and sinker but she allows her readers to consider its validity through the characters whose stories she tells. Lahiri looks at Bengalis who become replanted and raised in the soil of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and those who visit Italy and Thailand. She looks at representatives from different generations and subtly asks what is happening to them through their journey of migration, the seesawing of the heart between India and the new homelands, their movement through the predictable stages of life and the kaleidoscope of grief, memory, lament and celebration.

For instance Ruma’s father is an elderly man who pops up in several of the stories. Now based in the USA he visits Ruma (who is married to an American) and her family. His grandson asks his mother why Grandpa takes his shoes off before coming inside the house. This custom is one of many examples about which readers ask, “In this transplantation process what customs do they retain in the new soil? What do they shed? What do they miss? What do they gain?”

The author is a traveler who has gained much from her journeys for her descriptions and drama draw heavily on close observation in such Italian locations as Volterra and Siena. Lahiri’s exquisite detail is attractive and adds charm to her writing. She writes not about whiskey but about a bottle of Johnnie Walker, not about sitting in front of the television but watching The Brady Bunch, not about perfume but Chanel No. Five (whose fragrance readers can recognize), not about cooking but the heavy smell of curry on the kitchen stove.

In addition to her observation powers is Lahiri’s depth of reflection. Consider the wisdom in this cameo:

“There were times Ruma felt closer to her mother in death than she had in life, an intimacy born simply of thinking of her so often, of missing her. But she knew that this was an illusion, a mirage, and that the distance between them was now infinite, unyielding.” (p27)

Ponder these thoughts of Ruma’s father who had been invited to stay permanently with Ruma and her family but who at the end of his visit was coming to this conclusion:

“Being here for a week, however pleasant, had only confirmed the fact. He did not want to be part of another family, part of the mess, the feuds, the demands, the energy of it. He did not want to live in the margins of his daughter’s life, in the shadow of her marriage.” (p53)

Like delphiniums or hydrangeas, whether these representative characters fail or flourish depends upon their commitment to personal care, the tending they receive from others and the harshness of the elements that make up their new sphere.

But what is the mark of successful transplantation? American university degrees framed and hung in the family gallery? Possessing a well-paid job with a reputation that others admire? Getting married and nurturing your growing brood? Will an Indian (or Italian) who has successfully negotiated the migration process feel at home in the new country or is it an achievement and an advantage to feel like Edward Said always felt, ‘out of place’?

Lahiri writes of Bengalis who have moved from Calcutta to Chicago where they spend much of their time attending ‘Bengali cultural circles’, and their American-born grandchildren who like KFC more than curry and who cannot speak more than a greeting in Bangla. But beyond the more noticeable customs of language, food and removal of shoes Lahiri grapples with how the transplantation affects morals and values. She writes of a Bengali-American family whose children do not stay at home until they get married but who leave home to go to College. In this new rite of passage there is anxiety and excitement for the young men and women as they encounter much consumption of Budweiser and sexual experimentation. The delight and dread and the love-hate feelings of the older generation in America are expressed by Sudha’s mother:

“That’s the problem with this country. Too many freedoms, too much having fun. When we were young, life wasn’t always about having fun.” (p143)

Unaccustomed Earth is about soil and sunlight, flowers and weeds, uprooting and replanting. This is a book to relish, an octave that stretches and twangs the emotions, an open-ended thesis that calls readers to provide the answers, a mirror to observe one’s growth and vitality.

Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth (New York, Toronto: Alfred A Knopf, 2008).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 90.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Jhumpa Lahiri; Front cover of Unaccustomed Earth.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

This reprinted book illustrates the power of publicity. In the preface to this 2004 edition Barack Obama said that when the book was first released in 1995 the sales were ‘underwhelming’. Since he became US Senator and Vice Presidential nominee the book has become the ‘No. 1 International Bestseller’. The author’s honesty about the weak impact of his newly published book, his assessment that the volume is a little long and his recognition that the telling of the story left him feeling ‘exposed and even slightly ashamed’ are examples of his honesty and transparency.

As Joan Didion acknowledged that she writes in order to learn what she is thinking, Barack Obama’s journey in ink fulfils a similar purpose. After finishing law school at Harvard University he took time to write a book about the current state of race relations in America. He later said: “I found my mind pulled toward rockier shores. First longings leapt up to brush my heart. Distant voices appeared, and ebbed, and then appeared again.” (xiv)

This book became the record of a sacred search—his search for his father, his search for his identity, his search to understand his mixed heritage amid broken and lost relationships, his search to understand what it means to be black and in particular, a black American. The author says that the book is not strictly autobiographical in the sense of ‘summing up’ but more the beginnings of a literary family album and a book of questions. Among many questions in this book Obama asks:
Who am I?
What does it mean to be black?
Where do I belong?
What am I to do in life?
Who is my family?
Where does faith come from?
What sort of faith do I need?
Where is home?
What does it mean to come home?

These are personal questions yet most of them are universal questions. His answers are therefore helpful to readers, not because Obama provides ready-made answers but for his helpful pointers as people make their own journey. His loneliness and perplexity about his identity and the lack of help from others finds candid expression when he writes:

“Away from mother, and away from my grandparents, I was engaged in a fitful interior struggle. I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant.” (36)

The author is appreciative of the sacrifices made by some of his family members and is frank about the somewhat messy, scary and at times disappointing process of meeting family members for the first time, yet the sharing of these stories gives him a sense of place and purpose.

This book is indirectly a guide to personal pilgrimage, an invitation to consider one’s own story and join the dots, to begin filling in the gaps and find the jigsaw pieces that gradually reveal a picture that is a mixed blessing and one that is never finished. An example of a practical pointer about making a journey of one’s heritage comes from the lips of Barack’s African grandmother when she says to him, “A man can never be too busy to know his own people.” (377)

Obama demonstrates what it means to explore one’s history as the book shows him on a visit to Africa, searching, yearning, observing, listening, discovering and collecting. About his African grandfather he says, “If I could just piece together his story, I thought, then, perhaps everything else might fall into place.” (372)

The book records not only a gathering of family information but a journey from aimlessness to the development of strong convictions. As his mother said to him while he was young, “If you want to grow into a human being you’re going to need some values.” (41)

The author of this book is a wordsmith who searches for the right word, delights in his discovery and comes to realize the sheer power of words. During a visit by his father to the USA and to his school young Barack was amazed at the way his father spoke and captivated his classmates. This set the boy on another journey that began with these words: “If I could just find the right words…” (106)

A glimpse into the way Obama has found the right words and possesses the eye of a poet is found in this record of his safari in Kenya:

“And there, on the other side of the rise, I saw as beautiful a land as I’d ever seen. It swept out forever, flat plains undulating into gentle hills, dun-colored and as supple as a lion’s back, creased by long gallery forests and dotted with thorn trees. To our left, a huge herd of zebra, ridiculously symmetrical in their stripes, harvested the wheat-colored grass; to our right, a troop of gazelle leaped into bush. And in the center, thousands of wildebeest, with mournful heads and humped shoulders that seemed too much for their slender legs to carry.” (351)

One of the few unsatisfying things about this book is the epilogue and the way Obama crams many important life events and his feelings about these into a few lines. His changing attitudes, his marriage to Michelle and the death of her father are dealt with in mere headlines. Realizing that his is an unfinished story it may have been better to omit these references altogether.

This is an important book for understanding the person who has and will continue to make a vital contribution to the stories of America and our world. Dreams from my Father is a valuable story that may serve as a mirror in which readers will see themselves and will be helped by the author’s courage to take an interior journey, to ask the questions and confront the answers that we both seek and fear.

Barack Obama, Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1995, 2007)

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 68.00.

Barack Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope, is posted at this link on Reviewing Books and Movies.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front covers of two editions of Dreams From My Father.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Your Invitation to Subscribe to Postings from this Site

I’d love you to subscribe to postings from this site because:

1. It is free (unlike most subscriptions).
2. You don’t have to become a ‘member’ of this site.
3. I travel a lot and therefore postings are not always regular.
4. When you subscribe you will get an alert that a new article has been written.

Click on the Subscribe button (see pictured) to get article alerts coming to your computer via Google Reader, Bloglines, or however you manage your favorite web site feeds.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: This has become the universal Subscribe Button on most Internet web sites.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Good to Great by Jim Collins

After seeing many Facebook users list in their ‘profile’ the book Good to Great in answer to the question, “Which books have influenced and enriched your life?” I was intrigued to read this book and discover the secrets of its inspiration.

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t is a compelling read because the author, Jim Collins exemplifies the type of leader that characterizes great companies. This book is not the work of one man but the product of a diverse team whose contributed is generously applauded and acknowledged by the inspiring author.

The book is as much about leadership as it is about the culture of an organization but the depth of the material is typified by the refusal to state leadership as the answer to all organizational ills but to define the particular style of leadership that results in corporate effectiveness.

Good to Great represents a five-year project in which the researchers explored the question, “Can a good company become a great company [these terms are defined], and, if so, how?” The work involved identifying companies that made the leap from good results to great results that were sustained over a fifteen year period. Importantly, this project did not begin with a theory to prove but the concepts were developed by making empirical deductions directly from the data.

The book would be enhanced if the research teams had examined and told stories of companies that were not based in the USA, even though the book contends that the principles can be applied to any organization in any country. To examine companies in other countries (might have posed difficult research challenges) but it would have provided a richer international dimension and perspective. A wider cultural range would have added to the appeal of the book and broadened the readership.

The result is the synthesis of a huge body of material that is boiled down into several findings such as this one: “Greatness…is largely a matter of conscious choice.” Each chapter is devoted to examining a different common denominator of great companies. The sections are well-organized, with themes supported by ample footnotes, several appendices and a comprehensive index. The chapters contain useful diagrams and graphs, key statements are highlighted in boxes and they all conclude with a succinct summary.

Each chapter interestingly includes a segment of surprises resulting from the unexpected findings of the research team. For example they discovered that “technology and technology-driven change has virtually nothing to do with igniting a transformation from good to great.”

The way the researchers presented and honed their findings is significant and an example to commend. They did not work only in solitude for they engaged in weekly meetings in which they discussed the stories and debated the salient principles. Their style has important ramifications for the reading as well as the research of this book. Good to Great would be strengthened by including questions that would help and encourage readers to engage in the corporate study of this book including the discussion of how the principles might inform their own organizational practice. [Further exploration has led to finding a discussion guide at this link]

This is a book to be studied and discussed by leaders, workers and board members of organizations that desire to move from being ‘OK’ or ‘good’ to companies of significance and high influence.

Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t (New York: HarperCollins Books, 2001)

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 110.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Good to Great.

More information about Jim Collins and his work of research, writing and teaching is available from this web site:

Monday, August 25, 2008

Desert Children by Waris Dirie

Desert Children is the third ‘Desert’ book by Waris Dirie, the former fashion model, face of Revlon and UN ambassador for women’s rights. Having told her autobiography in Desert Flower and recorded her return to Somalia in Desert Dawn, this book, Desert Children, extends the focus from Dirie as a person to the challenge of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Europe.

Dirie has written this book in collaboration with Corinna Milborn, a political scientist, Austrian journalist and specialist in human rights issues. They tell how a team of journalists set out to investigate the problem of female genital mutilation and came up with solutions to abolish this practice in Europe.

The book commences with a painful story which becomes the catalyst for the author’s ‘third life’ as a social activist. The pain continues throughout the book as Waris and her team interview women in Europe who have been the subject of genital mutilation. One of the startling revelations of this book is its claim that at least 150 million women and girls worldwide are victims of circumcision, that 500,000 girls and children are affected in Europe alone and that this problem is on the rise.

This is an ideal first book to read about the subject and it takes the form of a journey as Dirie explores the extent of the problem and considers how she and her team will tackle the issue. The book is clear and readable in literary style but its portrayal of deep pain, which is never done gratuitously, makes Desert Children a stomach-turner and a difficult read.

The book is informative without getting bogged down with statistics and unnecessary detail. The author explains the different degrees of mutilation and the reasons why they are carried out. Dirie helps readers to understand the damage that is done by using insensitive labels and she explains the importance of using the right terminology. For instance the author explains why many victims object to the term ‘circumcision’, preferring to use the word ‘mutilation’. The diversity of views is evident in the way some campaigners opt for the expression ‘sexual mutilation’, believing that this practice destroys a woman’s sexuality, not just her genitals. Several appendices at the end of the book are offered to enable readers to understand technical terms and to provide links for those who wish to follow through on services and resources that originate from or exist in different European countries.

As Dirie and her team travel throughout Europe their interviews contribute to a greater understanding of the issue and the different ways that female genital mutilation is understood, practiced and responded to. In a storytelling style, Dirie relays her encounters with medical practitioners, many of whom assist parents to get their daughter ‘cut’ and a much smaller number who are helping victims in the work of physical repair, surgical reconstruction and psychological counseling. Talking to medicos, lawyers, politicians, activists and religious teachers, Dirie presents the many facets surrounding this issue.

Sometimes there are sound bytes and sentences in the book that seem in contradiction to Dirie’s findings. For instance, in making her bold conclusion that female genital mutilation is violence against women and a breach of human rights she says: ‘FGM is not a question of culture. FGM is a question of torture.” (p11) A variation of this statement appears more forcefully on Dirie’s web site: “Female Genital Mutilation has nothing to do with culture, tradition or religion. It is a torture and a crime which needs to be fought against.” Dirie, however, devotes chapters to the power of cultural norms which become even stronger in the migrant community in Europe. She catalogs the women and men carrying out customs that they believe are sanctioned by scriptures and religious leaders, who are “utterly convinced that they are doing the right thing” for their daughters. Furthermore, Dirie’s quest to understand the Islamic teaching on circumcision, virginity, the human body and sexual pleasure is motivated by her desire to examine religion’s reinforcing power and her belief that “genital mutilation would disappear overnight if the leaders of the world’s religions were to say, ‘Mutilation is contrary to the ethical principles of our religious community. Stop doing it.’” (p168)

As the book chronicles an exhausting journey of fact finding and discovery, one senses great emotion—anger at the prevalence of this oppressive practice in Europe, frustration at the power of culture and ritual, and deep grief as stories are voiced for the first time over the silencing power of taboos. Waris Dirie demonstrates immense courage as she spends six months throughout Europe, hearing stories, watching movies and viewing medical photographs that every day tears open her own wounds. While considering the different sides and the complexity of this torture Desert Children is positive, hopeful and a stirring call to action.

The author quotes Salman Rushdie’s wisdom which he wrote in The Ground Beneath Her Feet: “You will not see the whole picture unless you step out of the frame.” (p210) This is easier said than done. Dirie cannot divorce completely the issue of female genital mutilation from her own story but she strives to step out of the frame and see the picture objectively. She does this by her patient listening, her recognition that each person has their own story, her persistent asking of the hard questions and the methodical way that she formulates a strategy in which others can participate.

Dirie’s analysis of the problem of female genital mutilation demonstrates how this is not a woman’s issue but a human concern. This book, therefore, should be compulsory reading for men as well as women-lawyers, doctors, ministers of religion, politicians and lawmakers and ordinary human beings, regardless of their occupation, race, religion and creed-all people who share this planet and are wanting to make a difference.

Waris Dirie with Corinna Milborn, Desert Children (London: Virago Press, 2005).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 49.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Desert Children.

More information about Waris Dirie and her work is available from this web site:

Waris Dirie Foundation

Monday, August 18, 2008

Nothing to be Frightened of by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes’ book begins with this intriguing sentence: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.” This opening is the high point of the book and it is all down hill from there. Nothing to be Frightened of is a mongrel, a bitzer. It is a ragbag of reminiscences, memoirs and Barnes family folklore. It also incorporates a deeper discussion on death.

The author himself is unsure of the genre for after thirty pages he says to his readers: “This is not, by the way, ‘my autobiography’. But with this book Barnes has blown his chances of writing a standard autobiography. Written in the first person, Barnes recalls his childhood with the wheelbarrow races and evenings when the family tuned into the wireless to savour the dulcet tones of John Gielgud.

This book tracks the author’s University studies and alludes several times to his ventures in France. Nothing to be Frightened of is about Barnes’ developing ideas about religion and faith. The scope of the book stretches from his breast-fed babyhood to his new status as a sixty-year old and readers are given glimpses into the writer’s club that Barnes attends and such details as the author’s deafness and his swelling prostate. Even if Barnes writes an autobiography it will take readers of this book much convincing that they want to read another version of his life story.

Julian Barnes is the self-appointed family archivist and the book reads like an emptying of the drawers of his desk as he picks his way through family certificates, passports, notebooks, scrapbooks, telegrams and allows them to speak. The book is rich in family memories, many of which are interesting and quaint. The author is struck by how family members have a different take on the same events. He does not ‘gild the lily’ or ‘colour in the memories’. On the contrary, Barnes is forthright about the weaknesses and idiosyncrasies of his family, including his own and he specializes in shocking readers with references to ‘unmentionables’ such as his revelations of masturbation.

The focus of this book is death and this is the subject about which “there is “nothing to be frightened of” (Barnes’ quote from his diary when in his forties). This book discusses the fear of death, the experience of touching the dead, the relationship between faith and the approach to death, the art of dying (including the best and worst-case scenarios), the moment of death, the stages of grief and the afterlife.

Barnes seems to be taking Montaigne’s line that “since we cannot defeat death, the best form of counter attack is to have it constantly in mind.” Sometimes he appears to be ‘pit-gazing’ but he strives for a middle ground between constantly brooding over death and the complete avoidance of this certain event. His discussion of thanatology includes many references to what others have said about death, especially Renard, Montaigne and Flaubert but also some recent writers such as Elizabeth Kübler-Ross.

The author ventures into areas of faith, belief, religion and that which he misses about God. Of special interest is the author’s discussion of religious art and the value that is found in religious art by those not possessing a faith in God.

Julian Barnes appears diffident about his excursion into this territory and feels the need to give his readers this information and self-defence:

“Perhaps I should warn you (especially if you are a philosopher, theologians or biologist) that some of this book will strike you as amateur, do-it-yourself stuff. But then we are all amateurs in and of our own lives.”

Furthermore, after covering some issues of theory and abstract thought Barnes breaks into a chatty and almost condescending tone with such lines as, “Still hanging in there, I hope.”

As a student Barnes kept a box of green index cards, on which he copied pithy sayings, quotations and pieces of wisdom. With this book the author appears to be going through his greatly enlarged box, sorting them into rough themes and writing out the wisdom. In attaining the three-quarter mark in his life Barnes is giving full expression to his entry into these “advice-giving years”.

Nothing to be Frightened of has no chapters but each time Barnes takes a fresh card and changes tack, this is indicated with a line. This emptying of the box in what he calls his “lolloping style” is an unsatisfying ramble.

Barnes alludes to the way Rachmaninov cured his fear of death by eating pistachio nuts. Nothing to be Frightened of is like picking through a bowl of pistachios. There are bits of tasty, nourishing nuts to be had and Barnes is at his best with his humorous stories, perceptive detail and clever wit. But readers must work hard to find the nuts and the frustrating pile of shells leaves you wondering whether it was worth the effort.

The author explains his return to the study of literature at Oxford after a brief foray into philosophy:

“I returned to literature, which did, and still does, tell us best what the world consists of. It can also tell us how best to live in that world, though it does so most effectively when appearing not to do so.” (p151)

Readers of this book will agreed that Barnes is also at his best when writing literature.

Julian Barnes, Nothing to be Frightened of (London: Jonathan Cape, 2008).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh128.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Nothing to be Frightened of.

Related Review:
Arthur and George, by Julian Barnes RBM

Monday, August 11, 2008

Children’s Books in Arabic

Isobel Abul Houl, publisher for Jeroboam Books that publishes children's books in both English and Arabic, says: "There's a lack of good children's books in terms of illustration, quality and imagination, so the majority of children's books in Arabic are often translated or they're poor quality."

Isobel feels that there's "a belief that books should be cheap but parents will happily pay Dh42 for a children's book in English, but won't pay this for the Arabic equivalent, because it's perceived as too expensive. Why should it cost less money because it's in Arabic?"

To read more about the paucity of good quality books in Arabic for children click on this link to the Gulf News article, Children’s Books in Arabic are a Sad Tale, 21 June 2008.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Children’s books. Photo (which accompanies the article) courtesy of Alice Johnson, Gulf News, who also wrote the story.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz

This book consists of 500 pages and it is the first part of a trilogy entitled ‘The Cairo Trilogy’. Modern day publishers would send back such a manuscript to the author saying, ‘Has promise but cut it back to 200 pages and then give me another look’. But this tome was published in 1956 in Arabic and it has only recently been available to an English readership.

Don’t be too quick to knock this book off your ‘Books I’d Like for my Birthday’ list because the Egyptian author, Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), won the Nobel Prize for Literature (1988) for contributions like this. Arab leaders today are bemoaning the lack of books in Arabic and Mahfouz has done much to popularize Arab literature throughout the world.

The style of Palace Walk belongs to a former era and it has been compared to the works of Tolstoy, Proust, Flaubert and Dickens and other authors to whom Mahfouz was indebted. The comparison goes further than the length of the books and includes the intricate detail, the character portraits and the lingering pace.

The story of Palace Walk concerns the nation of Egypt under British occupation following the First World War but the focus is sharpened and the issues heightened as Mahfouz centres on the twists and turns in the daily journey of one Egyptian family.

While some events and experiences relate exclusively to the earlier time and the circumstances of Cairo the book contains important insights into everyday Arab culture and thinking in different places and circumstances.

Michael Palin’s assessment of Yemen as ‘a nation of secrets’ has implications for much of modern day Arab culture that happens behind walls and veils. Mahfouz reveals to his readers detailed insights into family dynamics (through the eyes of children and parents), patriarchal pressures, the conflicts between Islam observance and ethical dilemmas in modern life, the way sexual temptation is rationalized and the influence of the jinn (evil spirits).

This book offers a slow lingering walk with an author who possesses wisdom, humor and sensitivity.

Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk (London: Black Swan, originally published in English in 1990 but this edition 1994).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 60.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Palace Walk.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley

Top of the List
The crowded marketplace and high competition in today’s commercial world have driven the quality of innovation to the top of the list of required core competencies needed for most jobs. This adds weight to the importance of Tom Kelley’s book, The Art of Innovation.

Some people are blessed with bright ideas in their genes and like Alice in Wonderland, they have that uncanny ability to believe or dream up six impossible things before breakfast. Author and General Manager of IDEO, Tom Kelley, ardently embraces the conviction that innovation and creativity can be learned and mastered.

Innovation IDEO Style
The Art of Innovation studies the innovative practices of IDEO, America’s leading design firm, the company that invented stand-up toothpaste tubes, all-in-one fishing kits, high-tech blood analysers, flexible office shelves and self-sealing sports bottles.

At times one reads about IDEO ad nauseam as it seems like the book is written as a promotional tool but Kelley alludes to scores of other industries and products that illumine and provide insight—like this story about the golfing legend, Tiger Woods.

Textbook on Creativity
This is an interesting and comprehensive text for individuals who want to grow their creative muscles. Kelley writes about developing the keenness of the eye, careful observation (check out this example of what Larry Miller produced when he did this), getting close to the action and playing dumb so you ask lots of elementary questions.

This is not a book with rigid prescriptions of how things must be done for the hundreds of examples highlight the different approaches that can take people to the same destination.

You might think that you brainstorm ideas effectively, either alone or with your team, but Kelley’s ‘Seven Secrets for Better brainstorming’ will make you think you have not mastered the art or plumbed the depths of what can be dredged from a bevy of stimulated brains.

The Art of Innovation is a book that CEOs must read, as Kelley writes of the futility of hierarchical organizations and illustrates the beauty of flat staffing structures where every worker is valued.

While Kelley recognises the need for creative people to have thinking time and solitude he torpedoes the myth of the lone genius, believing that “great projects are achieved by great teams.” He elaborates on how to build a team, getting the right mix, identifying the characters that all good teams need, how to build and maintain morale and suggestions for team empowerment. To get more of a taste, read this story on the great football coach, Lou Holz or discover the way conductor Benjamin Zander gets the best out of his Philharmonic Orchestra.

Does Your Office Need an Overhaul?
Kelley examines not only the innovative individual and the creative team but the positive environment and how a leader sets the tone and cultivates a climate for discovery.

The IDEO work place was dubbed by the Wall Street Journal as “imagination’s playground.” Kelley has much to say about creating the right spaces, colours and other items that offices require to spawn innovation.

Creative Potpourri
The Art of Innovation is a potpourri of stories and ideas. It is written in an enthusiastic and an energetic style. One needs to pick it up and read it every so often, especially when you need to be fired up.

Whatever field of endeavour you are working in, this book will connect and give you the principles to take and transform your work.

Tom Kelley with Jonathan Littman, The Art of Innovation: Lessons and Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm (London: Profile Books, 2001).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 70.00.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Art of Innovation; Tom Kelley.

Further Stories from this Book:
Get on your bike: Success Breeds Complacency, Stories for Speakers
Snowboarding: Fear Doesn’t Get You Down the Mountain, Stories for Speakers.