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.