An avid reader calls it as she sees it on books, publishing and the written word in general.

Friday, May 24, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

I’m going to acknowledge the obvious right off. Yes, the cover of this book features a large photograph of Sheryl Sandberg. Her job title (COO of Facebook) is printed almost as large as the subtitle of the book (Women, Work and the Will to Lead). Yes, she comes from a privileged background, studied at an elite university and then managed to hitch a ride on two of the brightest stars in the Silicon Valley firmament in Google and then Facebook. Yes, this looks like a book and an author who, if not actually obnoxious, is certainly going to enjoy preaching from her exalted pulpit to all the unenlightened rest of us about how women should get ahead in life. Certainly the book has drawn some rather vicious reviews.

As usual, first impressions are completely wrong.

I picked up the book on the age-old principle of not judging a book by its cover, and I haven’t been disappointed. In the first chapter, Sandberg acknowledges her privileged background and points out that family support played an important role in her success. She comes across as candid, thoughtful and genuinely trying to help women navigate a workplace that in many cases is structured to give their male peers an advantage. What’s more, the book is easy to read, even entertaining at times. How can you not like a woman who admits, “My first six months at Facebook were really hard. I know I’m supposed to say “challenging” but “really hard” is more like it.”

What I liked most about the book was Sandberg’s ability to amalgamate scientific data with her own experiences and draw lessons that are widely applicable. She talks about the guilt of taking her son to school and forgetting to dress him in a green T-shirt for St Patrick’s day – observing “Guilt management can be just as important as time management for mothers” – and goes on to discuss a Stanford study showing that setting obtainable goals is the key to happiness. She concludes “The aim is to have children who are happy and thriving. Wearing green T-shirts on St Patrick’s day is purely optional.”

It’s true that I’m squarely in Sandberg’s target audience: young, female, and (sort of) climbing the corporate ladder. Not all of her advice will be relevant to everyone, and she doesn’t pretend that it will be. But what she is clearly passionate about is encouraging women to speak out, step forward and (painful Americanism though it is) lean in. For that I think she can only be applauded.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Book Review: Amazonia by James Marcus

Amazonia purports to tell the story of five years in the life of – a biography of the company from 1996 to 2001, if you will.  Those were the years that James Marcus spent as employee number 55 during the dot-com boom. It’s also, partially and not very successfully, the tale of Marcus’ relationship with the company.

Problem is, Amazon as a company is the brainchild of Jeff Bezos. More than that – Amazon is Bezos and Bezos is Amazon, one of the only people to ride out the .com boom and bust and still be captaining the ship years later. Yet Marcus is able to throw very little light on the man behind the company. His impressions are limited to his initial interview and the occasional appearance at a company picnic or event. Without that insight into its driving force, his sketch of the company becomes little more than a narrative of its office politics, in which Marcus depicts himself as a guileless victim of others’ manoeuvrings.

The personal workplace narrative can work, as a genre – just look at The Devil Wears Prada. Unfortunately, Marcus seems to have a somewhat ambiguous relationship with his former employer. He’s not sure how he feels about the company that solved all his financial problems, but also made him question his role as a journalist. He dwells on these questions rather a lot. This may have been a better, or at least more entertaining book if he’d decided Bezos was the devil and decided to stick the boot in. Instead he seems to be hobbled by his journalistic ethics and attempts to be fair to all the people he portrays. The result reminds me why I usually prefer to read fiction.

If you’re looking for insight into how the .com boom came to pass or why it failed, don’t look here. If you are interested in how Bezos created a company from scratch that went on to dominate online retailing, there is little to learn from Amazonia. The only reason to read it is to try and understand what it was like, on a personal level, to be part of a crazy time when the world seemed to go mad. Marcus still seems puzzled by the whole episode today and most probably, readers will be left feeling the same way.