Book 22 of 52: "The Mirror Crack’d" by Agatha Christie

Sometimes, I pick up a book because it has an amazing tagline or introduction, but I soon find that the author has failed to deliver on the potential of his or her plot premise.

For Agatha Christie’s novels, on the other hand, I find that the opposite is what tends to be true.  Take this mystery, for instance.  This is a Miss Marple story, and already I’m less than interested – it’s tough for me to see eye to eye with an elderly woman who has never even left her village, and tends to rely mostly on gossip to solve her murders.  And in this story, obviously written later in Christie’s career, Marple is getting up in years, to the point where she is nearly house-ridden, and must rely on a nurse for much help.

If that was all I knew about this story, I would have put it down.

But I kept reading – and I’m glad that I did.
Although the story begins with the elderly and confined Marple, we soon leave her behind as we follow an older, but still beautiful, actress.  She has just moved into the large mansion in the town, and throws a party – where one of the guests winds up poisoned!

Soon, however, it becomes clear that although the guest, a rather disagreeable middle-aged woman, was the one who ended up dead, the poison was actually meant for the actress herself!  Who has it out for this woman?  And will she end up dead before Marple (helped out by a much younger relative in the police) can pin down the killer?
I won’t give away more, but once again, I couldn’t guess the killer.  In fact, this time, I thought I had the right individual chosen – but then changed my mind.  If I had just stuck with my initial assumption, I would have finally gotten it right!  Damn you, Christie, and your slippery little mind!
Time to read: a little under 3 hours, as is typical for her stories.  I wonder how long it would take me if I sat down with all her books and refused to budge?

Book 21 of 52: "The Unmaking of the American Working Class" by Reg Theriault

I’ve been reading a lot of books about the fall of the middle class.  Why?  Well, I suppose because I fit pretty well into the middle class, and if the class is disappearing, I want to make sure that I get squeezed out the top, not the bottom.

Most of the books I’ve been reading are outside looks into the fall of the middle class, presented by the elite authors and with plenty of statistics to back up their claims.  This book, however, is different – since it’s instead authored by a man who’s been in the working class all his life.
Reg Theriault grew up picking fruit (a “fruit tramp”, he terms himself), and then switched to working as a longshoreman – a job he held for several decades.  Instead of overwhelming the reader with statistics, this book is more a series of anecdotes and reflections on his time in the industry.

As I read the book, I felt as though I was sitting at a bar, listening to the man literally tell me these stories over a beer or two.  While they are sometimes loosely related, either to each other or to the larger theme, they do paint an overall picture of a shifting world, a world where mechanization and automation are reducing the need for manpower.

While all of these innovations are great for increasing per-worker productivity, they also mean that fewer workers are needed to reach the maximum level of productivity needed by the industry.  What happens to the other workers, then?

Theriault doesn’t have answers to that question.  But he does note that the times are changing, and that the working class will have to look for new niches if they hope to survive.  And really, they don’t have any other true choice.

Time to read: 2 hours.  Seriously, this one reads like an ambling tale from a gentleman at the bar.

Book 20 of 52: "Twilight of the Elites – America after Meritocracy" by Christopher Hayes

A meritocracy is a society in which an individual advances based on his or her achievements, accomplishments, and overall successes.  In a meritocracy, it doesn’t matter who your parents are, or what you inherit – it’s your achievements that determine your success.  In essence, it’s the American Dream.

In this novel, Christopher Hayes argues that America used to be a meritocracy – but that it’s quickly fading.  Why?
Well, a lot of reasons – but the big one is that, thanks to a whole new group of ways to give yourself and your future descendants a leg up, the deck often turns out to be heavily stacked.  Instead of everyone starting off on the same step, a couple individuals manage to start out several feet in front of the rest – or sometimes even almost at the finish line.

There are many examples of this at an individual level – and most of them benefit the rich.  If you’re rich, you can pay accountants to manage your money in trusts, so that it dodges taxes and is passed on to your heirs.  You can pay for elite kindergarten and elementary schools, so your kids get the best education.  You can pay your way into colleges and the workplace – if you need to work at all.  And, of course, you can pay to dodge taxes through a million little loopholes.

But why are all these avenues available in the first place?  Hayes argues that the real core reason is linked more to the decline of the social contract in America.  Instead of “all of us are in this together,” we have now become a selfish nation, one where it is perfectly acceptable to knock down your fellow man in order to get ahead yourself.  And this “us versus them” mentality appears everywhere – Wall Street, Major League Baseball, and even in the Catholic Church.

I greatly enjoyed the presentation of the topics in this book, and I wholeheartedly agree with Hayes.  The issue is, of course, that while many books can accurately display the problem, there are few solutions available.  We’re left with rage, but no outlet to improve things.

Frustrating, to say the least.  Pitchforks, everyone!

Time to read: 4-5 hours.

Book 19 of 52: "Sham – How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless" by Steve Salerno

Last week, I was reading about the invisible poor in America.  This week, I’m reading about how the “self-help” movement has done terrible things to America.  C’mon, when does America get a break here?  And when do I get something upbeat to read?

Maybe I can find a way to help myself…
When Salerno addresses “self-help”, he’s referring to more than just those guidance books in the local Barnes & Noble.  The Self-Help movement includes everything from faith healers to get-rich-quick seminars to motivational speakers to Dr. Phil.  All of these different sources of information are full of advice on what you should or should not do in order to make every single problem in your life magically disappear.

We all know that they’re mostly full of crap.

But the origins and underpinnings of the Self-Help movement go deeper, Salerno insists.  He says that the origins of this corrupting influence rest with two philosophies, created back in the thirties and forties:

Victimization, where nothing is your fault.  Everything is a condition, a disease, out of your hands.  All bad things, that is.

Empowerment says that you can accomplish anything good that you set your mind to.  You can go out and conquer the world!

Of course, the real trouble comes when these two beliefs start mixing together.  “With our help, you can accomplish anything – and if you fail, it’s because you’re a victim of other forces conspiring against you!” claims the Self-Help movement, and you eagerly nod along as you hand over your credit card.

While I agree with most of what Salerno says, I don’t always agree with some of his conclusions.  Salerno tends to stray across the morality line a couple times, insinuating that moral beliefs should negatively reflect on a person’s skills or abilities.  While lack of morality might damage a person’s holistic image, an embezzler is not necessarily worse than his or her coworkers at an assigned task.

Overall, it’s a good – not great – read.  I would compare it to Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright-Sided”, calling them similar both in terms of the targets that they pick, and my overall feelings towards the books.

Time to read: 4 hours.  I read this one right before it was due back to the library, so I was under a deadline!

Book 18 of 52: "The Working Poor: Invisible in America" by David Shipler


That’s what I had to say at several points in this book, physically putting the book down and staring up at the ceiling.  Wow.

Never before, in reading a book, have I been so grateful for my comfortable life – and scared for my fellow man – as I felt when reading David Shipler’s epic chronicle of the lives of America’s working poor.

From immigrants to perennial members of the urban ghettos, Shipler paints little pictures of life below the poverty line.  From illegal immigrants who are treated basically as indentured servants on a farm, to stressed urban single mothers who work three jobs and are still falling behind, each chapter offers a new and heartbreaking look into the lives of the lower class.

Some of the statistics in this book are truly heartbreaking.  Shipler doesn’t do a lot of finger-pointing or chastising, and instead merely shows us what is present.  In a way, that seems almost worse – the man lets us draw our own conclusions about ourselves for letting our fellow humans suffer.  The conclusions are not good.

(David Shipler, by the way, has won a Pulitzer Prize, and it definitely shows in his writing.  Making this book especially hard-hitting is simply how well the book itself is written.)

In each chapter, Shipler begins by giving us an optimistic view – but just as we feel our hope begins to flutter, he brings it crashing back down to earth with the cold, hard, viciously cruel facts.

For anyone who claims that there is no depth of poverty that cannot be escaped through hard work and the “good ol’ American spirit,” this book will change their mind – and likely strip them of whatever optimism they once possessed.

I recommend it to everyone.

Time to read: Although only 300 pages, it is incredibly dense, and every chapter requires hours of thought to truly digest the horror within the pages.  This probably took me a full week to read.

Book 17 of 52: "Send – The Essential Guide to Email" by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe

I picked this book up on a whim.  “How hard is email, really?” I asked myself, as I considered whether it was even worth checking out from the library.  “As long as you don’t write down anything that’s completely idiotic, I’m sure email is as easy as talking to someone.”

After reading this book, I can honestly admit that I was wrong.

For you, dear reader, who is so certain that you know about email, here are a few tougher questions for you to consider:

  • What’s the protocol for adding someone to an email chain?  
  • Similarly, what’s the protocol for removing someone?
  • What happens if someone forwards your email without your knowledge?
  • What if someone forwards your email – but alters your words?
  • Is that person being sarcastic, patronizing, or genuinely thankful?
  • How are you coming off in your emails?
All of these questions were things I’d never really pondered before Send, and if you’d asked me, I probably would have had an answer – but no justification as to why.  Now, after reading this book, I think I better understand some of the intricacies of proper email correspondence – even if most others around me don’t bother to practice them.
Overall, I’d say that Send is a good read.  It’s easy and fun, fast-paced, and filled with great laugh-out-loud examples of famous people (if they had been able to communicate through email).  If you know someone with absolutely terrible email habits, this might be their next Christmas gift.
Time to read: 2-3 hours?  Under 300 pages, and small pages besides.

Book 16 of 52: "Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America" by Barbara Ehrenreich

Hey, Barbara Ehrenreich!  I remember reading “Nickel and Dimed”, one of your previous novels, on how it was impossible to survive on minimum wage – and then immediately read another novel, by Adam Shephard, who proved you wrong.  But I’ll try not to let that bias my opinion of your newest book, Bright-Sided.

Actually, I felt that Bright-Sided was a good book, overall.  The book starts off with talking about Barbara’s realization that she had breast cancer – followed shortly after by her discovery that breast cancer support groups tend to be saccharine sweet with their positive attitude, seeing the disease as an opportunity, and insisting that everything is candy and roses (and coincidentally, lashing out against anyone who dares say otherwise).

After that first chapter, I started to feel that this book is an attack on optimism itself!  What a ridiculous idea!  But then I read more, and I started to see that, although it’s not clear at first, there are definite differences between optimism (I believe that things will work out okay) and positivism (I am convinced things will work out okay, and because I am convinced, they’re guaranteed to happen that way!).

Ehrenreich points to positivism as being responsible for, among other things, the recent recession and housing market crash.  Anyone who dared to consider negative things happening, an end to the bubble of rising house prices, was promptly ignored and shunted to the sidelines.  Similarly, more and more churches these days (especially megachurches) tend to preach a message of positivism, that as long as you believe, all good things will happen to you.

Ehrenreich even mentions The Secret, a breakout novel in 2006 that insisted that, just by visualizing good things happening, they would be guaranteed to happen!  While having a positive outlook on life is, I believe, a good thing, one should not ignore basic facts of life, like the fact that earning $20k a year does not let you buy a new Lexus.

In the end, I think Ehrenreich’s book needs only one addition: “Bright-Sided: How EXCESSIVE Positive Thinking is Undermining America.”  Positive thinking isn’t wrong.  Delusional, excessive positive thinking is.

And as for Ehrenreich’s initial opening chapter on breast cancer – the truth is that breast cancer is a nasty, painful, long disease, with mediocre survival rates, and there’s nothing that we can do to either prevent nor improve survival chances.  However, telling this to people doesn’t help them at all, and may hinder them by depressing them, possibly even to the point of suicide.

Positivism doesn’t help people recover faster from breast cancer, but at least it might keep them from committing suicide upon receiving their diagnosis.

Time to read: about 6 hours.

Book 15 of 52: "The One Minute Manager" by Kenneth Blanchard & Spencer Johnson

What a weird, curious, short little book.

“The One Minute Manager” is one of those management books told as a parable, where we follow an unnamed main character as he meets a magical, mystical manager figure that somehow does everything right, where others fail.  In this book, that character is named, aptly enough, the One Minute Manager.

As our little straw man narrator/main character has discussions with the great One Minute Manager, as well as his adoring underlings, we get a picture of how, at least in this idealized world, managers are supposed to act in order to succeed.

In this perfect little world, the One Minute Manager sets clear, short, simple goals for his employees that they both agree on.  They meet each week to discuss progress on these goals, and the employees receive immediate and direct praise for things done well, and immediate scoldings for things done wrong.  These scoldings never attack the employee directly, but they do include praise as well, to encourage the employee to do better next time.

And that’s it.  That’s all the One Minute Manager does.

Oooh, magic.

Of course, this is all very well and good in the parable world.  But that’s not always the same as in the real world.  What do you do when the real world takes an unexpected turn that isn’t mentioned in our happy little artificial parable world?

For example, what happens when an employee simply isn’t motivated?  One minute a week isn’t enough to keep them believing that they should care about their assignment, especially if they’re salaried.  Or what if an employee has multiple projects – how does the manager decide which are most important?  How does the manager even make these decisions, aside from perhaps relying far too much on his own gut?

In all of these areas, “The One Minute Manager” is conspicuously silent.  Perhaps the strategy works in Parable World, but in the real world, I suspect it’s merely a reminder for managers to not micromanage or be too controlling or demanding on their employees.  And despite its short and easily readable form, this book really is just too simplified for most modern workers.

Time to read: 20 minutes.  Seriously, it’s only 100 pages, and only has about 50 words per page.

Book 14 of 52: "Free: The Future of a Radical Price" by Chris Anderson

Most of the time, the management books I read tend to re-hash the same facts over and over, so although the facts are good, I feel like I’m experiencing deja vu, like I’m reading the same book over and over.

Chris Anderson’s book Free, however, definitely has some new concepts – and that’s a great thing!

Anderson has noticed that, especially with the rise of the electronic market on the Internet, more and more things are being offered for free.  Is this the death of business?  Are free products going to eliminate many paid products?  Are we seeing the death of multiple industries, killed by a thousand free competitors?

In a nutshell, no.

Instead, Anderson argues that there are many ways to make money with free!  He outlines several main approaches:

  • The “Discounted” model, which includes options such as “buy one, get one free”.  You’re not really getting a second copy for free.  You’re getting two copies in exchange for some money.  This is the model most commonly still seen in the physical world, outside the internet.
  • The “Freemium” model, where users can pay for added features or enhancements.  Super popular in apps or other programs, where users are willing to pay to unlock custom content or to remove advertising.
  • The “Unlimited” model, where users pay a single price to access as much content as they want.  Netflix is the prime example.
  • The “Limited Time” model, where users can try a free trial version, intended to get them hooked on the product, before continuing to buy the full version when the trial expires.
  • The “Third Party” model, where users are the product, not the customer.  A program might gather data on its users in exchange for giving them a free tool – and then sells this data to interested companies.
  • The “Reputation” model, where the end goal is not profits, but reputation, recognizability, popularity.  Think of comedians who tweet.
I personally read “Free: The Future of a Radical Price” with a considering mind, because, as an author, I’m very interested in getting people to look at my books, hopefully with the end goal of purchasing them.  Will giving away books help me to sell more books?
Looking at the above models, it’s clear that some of these won’t work.  I can’t really sell upgraded versions of the books, so no Freemium.  The Unlimited model is already in effect through Kindle Unlimited on the Amazon site, and that does tend to generate a significant portion of my profits.  Limited Time and Third Party models don’t really apply to book sales.  
However, the Discounted model would be interesting to consider.  If I advertise that, with the purchase of one book, users can receive a code to download a second book for free, would that drive sales?  
In any case, “Free” definitely gave me a lot to think about, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone involved in sales, possibly of some small entrepreneurial venture that utilizes the internet.
Time to read: about 8 hours.  Because I stopped to think about what I’d read a lot, this took a while to get through.

Book 13 of 52: "Hickory Dickory Death", by Agatha Christie

I’ve read a lot of Agatha Christie this year!  This is what, the fifth book by her to appear on this list?  But contributing to my reason for going back to her over and over are several strong points:
  1. Her books are widely available, and always easy to pick up (no hunting for rare copies!);
  2. They’re fast to read;
  3. They always have that perfect “strong upper lip” sense of British sensibility, even when the topic is murder;
  4. And finally, I still am absolutely terrible at guessing the murderer in the end.
Take this book, for instance.  Once again, M. Hercule Poirot is dragged into a case that, although it starts off as a simple and puzzling series of thefts, soon escalates into murder.  The suspects are a group of students and young professionals living together in a boarding house, and Poirot must dig through the web of tangled connections to figure out everyone’s real story.
One complaint, however minor, that I can make against some of Agatha Christie’s stories is that they would fare much better with a cast of characters at the beginning.  Although it’s important for the reader to have a good list of suspects, the names and faces and quirks often seem to meld together – especially at the beginning of the tale.
In addition, in this story (which takes its name from the fact that this residence where the crimes occur is at 26 Hickory St) barely seems to feature Poirot at all, despite his involvement as the head detective!  Instead, most of the questioning seems to come from Inspector Sharpe.  And while the Inspector is perfectly adequate at his job, we see very little of his actual investigative work.
Overall, I’m not sure I’d dub this the strongest of Christie’s works, but it’s still an entertaining afternoon read.

Time to read: 3-4 hours, as is typical with Christie’s books.