Friday, May 29, 2015

Stress is Over-rated

The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to get Good at It – Kelly McGonigal, PhD (Avery)

It is fairly hard to escape the staggering numbers; prescriptions for stress reducing medications are at record numbers, with tens of millions of Americans downing mood altering chemicals in the desperate pursuit of trying to battle stress. Not that this is really anything new; prior generations simply chose a different poison so to speak, downing an after work cocktail…or six in an effort to “unwind.”

Given the current state of the economy; in the crapper despite the media’s best efforts to prop up the weakling Obama administration numbers, the expectations for those who actually have jobs pressed into wearing two, three or more hats and the flow of information bombarding us like a fire hose, is it any wonder stress is having a negative impact on or lives and health?

Well riding to the rescue is Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturerer and the bestselling author of The Willpower Instinct, with her new book The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at It. McGonigal makes the case in her research and by extension the book, that stress doesn’t always have to be a negative and cause us harm.

Could it be that stress makes us better? McGonigal makes the case that by embracing stress, we can actually become smarter, stronger and even happier! No, this isn’t based on some feel good mumbo jumbo; McGonigal rolls out a densely researched case for her hypothesis. This is not for the faint of heart or those apt to be reaching for the mood levelers; the research is heavy lifting and McGonigal displays a habit of making her case in an almost overly thorough way.


Fascinating Tale of Rusty Gold

Fast n’ Loud – Blood, Sweat and Beers – Richard Rawlings (William Morrow)

Full confession up front…I HATE cars. I have never been fascinated with turning a wrench, fixing up an old wreck and making it into something cool or fixated on having the latest or nicest vehicle. For me, cars are and have always been a necessary evil, a means to an end that gets me where I have to go and back.

That being said…I have always had a high level of admiration for those who are skilled with the range of tools necessary to take what for all intent purposes is a pile of junk and mold it into a gem. Richard Rawlings and his friends at the Gas Monkey Garage, the center pieces of the hit, Discovery Channel show Fast n’ Loud, are some of those talented folks.

Rawlings takes us not only behind the scenes of the show, but back into his youth and evolution into a master builder of custom metal. He offers up these details in his own entertaining style that has helped him build a legion of fans.

Rawlings also offers up a section with tips on how readers who are so inclined can get into and succeed at flipping cars. The great thing about it is he doesn't come off like some smarmy house flipper who will be offering up a seminar at the local Howard Johnson’s this week end only for only $99.95. He comes off as a straight shooter who makes no promises and tells no lies.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Summer Reads Are in the Starting Gate

Solitude Creek (A Kathryn Dance Novel) – Jeffery Deaver (Grand Central Publishing)

The smell of smoke. The cries of fire. The whirling stampede toward the exit only to find the doors blocked. Worst fears realized with six left dead…only there was no fire. Now the hunt is on to track down a killer who uses fear as a weapon to perpetrate his terrifying crimes.

Solitude Creek is master storyteller Jeffery Deaver’s latest installment in the Kathryn Dance series. Dance, a body language expert and investigator with the California Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and her team are playing beat the clock to capture a twisted killer bent on perpetrating more attacks.

While Deaver’s character Lincoln Rhyme has a well-honed eye for detail and a Sherlockian ability for crime solving, Dance is more of a hoodoo guru, using a bit of pseudo-science to track her prey. While I am a fan of the criminal minds, profiler genre I find Dance’s character a little tougher to grip and hold my attention. Solitude Creek didn’t serve up the usual heaping helping of Deaver twists and turn in the plot.

Flame Out – M P Cooley (William Morrow)

Author M P Cooley (not sure what the MP stands for) caught the attention of mystery/thriller fans with her debut novel Ice Shear featuring former FBI Agent June Lyons, who returned to her small town roots in Hopewell Falls, New York, to be a cop alongside her police chief father. Ice Shear was selected by O (Oprah Winfrey) Magazine as one of the best book of last summer and notched a starred review from Publishers Weekly.

Cooley and Lyons are back with a sophomore effort, Flame Out which finds Lyons plunged headlong into a dual track case; a current case of a badly burned women she rescues from a burned out factory and a mysterious body found in the subbasement of the factory that could date back to a notorious crime her father supposedly solved some three decades earlier.

Cooley knows how to push all the right buttons mixing a supposedly charming small town, with its own unique, checkered, underbelly and the loyalties of family and cops to ratchet up the story.

The Enemy Inside – A Paul Madriani Novel - Steve Martini (William Morrow)

I’ve got to be honest; for me the so-called legal thriller has become a tough sell. With the likes of John Grisham, Scott Turow and Linda Fairstein as confirmed masters of the form, I have always struggled to delve deeper into the genre and lately the masters have quite caught my attention.

Steve Martini has carved out a strong and steady career in the realm and is out with his latest entry, The Enemy Inside; which posits the plotline of a young man arrested for DUI who finds himself facing kicked up charges when the women who’s vehicle he struck ends up dead. With the current caseload a little on the sparse side, Paul Madriani, Martini’s long time lead character, and his team take the case. Turns out the kid wasn’t under the influence, but her can’t explain how he came to be at the scene 50 miles from home and involved in the wreck.

Almost on cue the evil empire types who tend to lurk in the background of so many of these stories sink their tentacles into things and mystery, already hard to grasp, delves deeper. While I don’t think The Enemy Inside will light the form on fire and start a fresh stampede of legal thrillers like The Firm or Presumed Innocent, it does offer enough hooks and interesting characters to keep you engaged.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

McChrystal - The Rules…Have Changed

Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World – General Stanley McChrystal, Tantum Collins, David Silverman and Chris Fussell – (Portfolio Books)

History tells us of the mighty Soviet military invading Afghanistan; they are met by a rugged terrain on the order of the surface of the Moon and a collection of grizzled fighters that are relentless in their efforts to hold off and defeat the invading horde. With the help of tens of millions of dollars of U.S. military aide funneled through the CIA and the Soviets stubbornness or inability to adapt to a different fighting paradigm, the seemingly rag tag Mujahedeen tribes send them packing.

Flash forward to the War on Terror and the U.S. Military launching a traditional military campaign of “shock and awe” based on expending massive amounts of military ordinance in an effort to overwhelm the enemy. It doesn’t take the leadership on the ground in both Afghanistan and Iraq to figure out, that there has been a shift in strategy and they need to respond accordingly with a new set of rules for engaging the enemy.

One of those leaders that came to the battlefield realization was General Stanley McChrystal. Now retired from the military and engaged in the battle ground of business, McChrystal and his co-authors, a pair of fellow special forces combatants and a student from the General’s leadership class at Yale, set out to see how the lessons learned in that battlefield shift could be applied in the business world. The result is Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World.

McChrystal and company make the case that even with the seeming fire hose of data and information available to leadership types; leaders can’t be “all knowing and all seeing”. It is that loosening of the stranglehold grip on control that will speed the transition from “puppet master” to the “crafter of culture”.

McChrystal’s thoughts on the value of a leaders words vs. their actions brought to mind one of the best leaders I ever worked for who impressed upon me the first week he was in the job of CEO that he didn’t “know everything about what you do…that’s why I pay you to do the job and make the decisions.” He went on to say “I want to move the decision making out of here (as he hooked a thumb toward his office) and over to you.” That was a major shift in thinking from his micromanaging predecessor and it took all of 10 seconds for me to embrace the change and take charge of my role within the organization.

One of the major steps that worked for McChrystal in battle and will transition well to business is “normalizing sharing”. Again it raises the importance of a leaders talk vs. their action; talk of transparency is meaningless without the sharing of detailed information. Technology offered the military a wide range of tools to implement the sharing strategy and the same holds true for business. This information sharing will help leaders avoid a top down management style, defeat business silos and bring people into the process.

Team of Teams is densely layered with real world examples of how the principles can be applied and will have you scrapping the standard org chart because the old rules have changed.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Criminal Minds – Clinton Cash

Clinton Cash – The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich – Peter Schweizer (Harper)

The Watergate conspiracy and investigation spawned many things; it brought into vogue so-called investigative journalism and added the famous catch phrase “follow the money” to the lexicon. There is a striking coincidence that Hillary Clinton came of age in Washington during the Watergate era as a member of the House Judiciary Committee staff charged with investigating that scandal. She was later removed from the investigation because she “… engaged in a variety of self-serving unethical practices in violation of House rules.”

Bestselling author Peter Schweizer has served up Clinton Cash – The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, in which he details what I can only describe as a series of complex and multi-layered enterprises; that are chock full of cut outs and bag men who seemingly shield the Clinton’s from leaving direct fingerprints. At times this thing reads like a criminal indictment, building a dense series of circumstantial evidence that point directly at the Clinton’s involvement in a lucrative criminal conspiracy.

Bill and Hillary come off like a modern day Bonnie and Clyde without the Tommy guns and certainly without the Mont Blanc pens of white collar criminals, because nothing is ever written down on paper and as far as electronic communications, we know who owns the server. The problem may be that to “follow the money” through the intricate webs of Friends of Bill and Hill, scumbag business types, tin pot dictators and other lowlifes that the Clintons have chosen to do business with, may be just a little too complex for the average, low information, Clinton/Obama voter.

The astounding thing is it is those same people who get jacked up about the Koch brothers, two successful, U.S. citizens who make above board (legal), public donations to support candidates and causes they believe in. Yet they will go out of their way to say there is nothing fishy about the Clintons getting paid massive amounts for speeches or the Clinton Foundation accepting donations from foreign dictators and tyrants, many of whom stand accused of heinous crimes and human rights violations. Laughably those donations often offer these dirt bags a form of International cleansing or legitimacy due to their association with the Clintons.

Schweizer and his team of investigators offer up a densely notated collection of information that ties the Clintons and their associates to what I can only describe as shady dealings. It gives new meaning to Bill Clinton’s recent protestations to NBC News that “I have to pay our bills” when you see the number of sycophants, hangers on, defenders and contributors that have reaped a windfall from their association with the Clintons.

It may be hard to believe after wading through uranium deals, donations from dictators and so many other scummy shenanigans that perhaps the most damning chapter of the book is the one that details the billions of dollars, many of them U.S. taxpayer dollars, of Haitian earthquake relief funds that were in the direct control of Bill and Hillary. While they detailed many grandiose plans to not only rebuild, but also to modernize and bring Haiti into at least the 20th century with new infrastructure and industrial facilities, what we bought with our billions didn’t even come close.

Massive and possibly criminal cost over-runs, shortfalls on promised basics like housing and projects were piles of money were allocated and spent and yet there was nothing delivered abound. Along the way, plenty of Clinton contributors and friends, many often NOT remotely qualified to deliver on the contracts they were rewarded, became staggeringly enriched. Again, follow the money. Five years after the earthquake that devastated the third world nation, much of Haiti remains in a state of disrepair and tens of thousands still live on the street. Why there has not been an audit or accounting of how the taxpayer’s money was spent is a mystery accept to those who understand how the Obama/Democrat, Justice Department operates.
Has Schweizer uncovered that one smoking gun piece that nails the Clintons? No, but he and his team have built a solid case for a much closer, much more detailed examination of the potential corruption of not only U.S. policy, but of the finances and operations of the Clinton Foundation and their associates. Will that happen? Based on the history of the Clintons, I wouldn’t hold my breath.  

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Non- Fiction Throw Down

In recent weeks there has been a huge number of top notch non-fiction reads that truly demand your attention. Here is a quick throw down of some of the best.

Ashley’s War – Gayle Tzemach Lemmon – (Harper)

Women in combat has been a debate that has seesawed back and forth for decades. Women have always been involved on the fringes of combat, often limited to support roles that rub up against all out battle.  Ashley’s War by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is so much about tat debate as it is about the cultural and societal role women in the military can play during times of battle.

The tried and true methods and techniques of war have been up against a new learning curve when it comes to the War on Terror and the fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The former Soviet Union learned the hard way that straight on battle would not get the job done. U.S. forces have learned to adapt to situations and taken on field strategies in new directions. While technology has played a role, military thinkers have also made smart choices in utilizing the more quickly adaptable Special Forces to fight and win battle.

In Ashley’s War, Lemmon details the role that women played in working alongside special forces operators to help break down cultural barriers within the tribes and opposing forces in Afghanistan. While it starts out with personnel histories of some of those women and comes off like a bit of a screed, when seemingly every one of the women had been alleged to be victims of some form of sexual assault, Lemmon moves on to detail how the process got started and the role these brave women played.

Operation Nemesis – Eric Bogosian (Little Brown)

Gotta tell you…this is not what I would have expected from actor, comedian, playwright Eric Bogosian. With a historian’s skill and a storyteller’s flourish, Bogosian details the story of a dedicated unit of assassin’s who set out to avenge the genocide of one million Armenians. It is fitting that in the year of the one hundredth anniversary of one of the greatest crimes of the 20th Century, that we look back at this story.

Bogosian weaves the story of this unlikely band of brothers; an accountant, a newspaper editor, and insurance salesman, a diplomat and an engineering student, who dubbed themselves Nemesis and set out seeking retribution for the slaughter. Bogosian’s Armenian roots shine through this richly textured and detailed account. Not exactly a light beach read, but certainly a well crafted tale.

The China Mirage – James Bradley – (Little Brown)

A look at today’s U.S. foreign policy will disclose a muddled mess crafted by often inexperienced and na├»ve leaders. But is this really anything new? While we are living in an age of 24 hour news cycles and citizen journalism, what will history and those who write it have to say about our current foreign policy when we will be able to dig more deeply into what is not currently revealed in the name of news.

Bestselling author James Bradley has served up a tightly drawn portrait of U.S.-China foreign relations dating back to the 19th century and forward into World War II and the Vietnam War; it is a history replete with warts and all that detail the deeply troubled relationship between two super powers. As with his previous endeavors, Flags of Our Fathers and Flyboys, Bradley again manages to reveal hidden truths behind U.S. Military engagements Southeast Asia. It is his undying pursuit of answers and the truth that set Bradley apart from his peers.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth – Col. Chris Hadfield (Back Bay/Little Brown)

I feel sad for my kids and a generation of their friends. I grew up in the era of The Right Stuff and NASA’s first forays into manned space flight and missions to the moon. I remember when class work would come to a screeching halt and we would all gather around a television with a scratchy picture and watch the latest Apollo launch from Cape Canaveral or get the latest update from Mission Control has pictures of brilliant men in crisp, short-sleeved, white shirts worked over “modern” control panels to guide the Astronauts from Earth.

I remember the sadness that enveloped me the day of the Challenger disaster and later covering for radio the Columbia shuttle disaster. I also remember the thrill of interviewing Chris Kraft, flight controller, call sign Houston, from Mission Control about his life as a NASA Engineer.

Given the current sorry state of NASA, the suspension of manned space exploration beyond hitching a ride on a Russian craft to the International Space Station; the U.S. space agency has been boiled down to a social and political correctness incubator. Those rare launches are moved from prime to the back pages; now only a Red Bull sponsored daredevil jumping off a space platform to parachute back to Earth gets anyone’s attention.

Thank God for Col. Chris Hadfield and his efforts to revive interest and spark curiosity about NASA and space flight. Hadfield serves up a firsthand perspective as one of the most experienced of the current crop of astronauts. Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth cements his status as a true NASA rock star. Combined with prolifically viewed YouTube videos and massive Twitter base, he could sigle handedly spark a renewed interest in space flight.

At times An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, takes on a Howard Wolowitz-like quality as Hadfield dishes on the cool stuff he gets to do, but why shouldn’t he?! The guy has logged 4000+ hours in space! That is pretty damn cool!

Duff Mckagan = Uncommon Sense

How To Be A Man (and other illusions) – Duff Mckagan (Da Capo Press)

Take one internationally famous rock star and have them dole out heaping helpings of uncommon, common sense. I know what you’re thinking…NEVER gonna happen, right? Since rock stars aren’t generally known for being fonts of common sense, that would have been my take; that is until I delved into the second book from former Guns ‘n’ Roses bassist Duff Mckagan.

In How To Be A Man (and other illusions), Mckagan taps into the previously unknown realm of music/memoir/self-help publishing category, writing with an easy and engaging style as he doles out advice, often hard earned, on a wide variety of topics. He posits them in easily digestible chunks that you can read from beginning to end or bounce around.

Some stuff is what you’d expect like; Know Your Tunes in which he runs down what deems essential music in the form of 100, or so, of the finest albums. Then there is the unexpected; Skip the Strip Club, Hit the Book Store, where he runs down an eclectic list of his favorite tomes and professes his pursuit of great reads at some of the world’s best book outlets.

Mckagan readily admits to not really becoming an adult until turning 31, so given that stunted start I find that he comes by his current world view via a series of ongoing Ah Ha moments. He is in turns worldly; serving up international travel tips gleaned from years on the road and then down to earth when it comes to family matters…after all those deck boards aren’t going to stain themselves.

How To Be A Man (and other illusions) is an entertaining entry on my list of favorite reads thus far, this year.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Book Pirates

The Last Bookaneer – Matthew Pearl (Penguin Press)

I’ve got to be honest, I am not a real fan of so-called historical fiction, but there have been a handful of recent examples of in the genre that I have found to be highly entertaining. Being a bit of an amateur book collector, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that these books are centered on the book business and feature some great and nefarious characters.

Author Matthew Pearl has made a career out of churning out an interesting array of colorful characters in books like The Dante Club and The Poe Shadow, and he continues that tradition in his latest outing, The Last Bookaneer.

Pen Davenport is an infamous bookaneer; a character who makes his living slithering about in the underbelly of the publishing business. Davenport isn’t a writer, editor of publisher; he is by trade a thief and a master at working the system by which loose copyright laws of the era make it easy for bookaneers to swipe manuscripts and less than scrupulous publishers to print and sell books cheaply to hungry readers leaving famous and not so famous writers in the poor house.

The hunt is on for what amounts to the last manuscript of Robert Louis Stevenson as pearl weaves and intricate tail of intrigue with these great fictional characters and conjures these book pirates against a back drop based loosely in the reality of Stevenson’s time on Samoa. He balances a fine mix of the era and the adventure to come up with another entertaining tale.

A Positive Start to the Beach Read Season

Positive – A Novel - David Wellington – (Harper Voyager)

Dystopian post-apocalyptic world…check.

Quarantined walled city…check.

Potentially infected types cast out to fend for themselves…check.

Road pirates willing to kill and take what they need to survive…check.

Zombies with an insatiable taste for human flesh and blood…check.

Take a heaping helping of the classic movie Escape from New York, add a dash of Walking Dead, a splash of Mad Max and a pinch of Zombieland and you’ve got a close approximation of David Wellington’s latest outing Positive.

Finn is a seemingly ordinary teenager, at least as ordinary as you can be when you live in a post-apocalyptic New York City and the biggest challenge you face is the daily pursuit of food. Creativity is the order of the day when it comes to that pursuit and setting traps in the flooded former Subway system leads to some interesting catches of the day. One such catch leads to all hell breaking loose and Finn discovering that his Mother is indeed infected and the really bad news is; he’s positive too!

Cast out into the wasteland outside the Big Apple, Finn has to be a fast learner when it comes to his own survival. Wellington takes what could be a predictable theme given the recent history of the genre and makes it into a page turner. If you look at the recipe cited above you’ll notice more cinematic references than not and that is the broad scope of Wellington’s writing style.

Is it War and Peace…no; but what zombie novel is? What it is, is an entertaining, quick read that could be the perfect first pitch of the beach read season, even if you need a hoodie for the visit to the sand.