Julia’s Book Club

by julia.hanigsberg | October 1st, 2012

Last spring the terrific students who put together Ryerson Folio asked if I’d contribute a short form book review to their fall edition. As an avid reader and a huge fan of Ryerson Folio how could I say no even if each review was supposed to be under 100 words!

One reason I continue to read books is that they offer me opportunities to engage deeply with subjects such as leadership and innovation that interest me professionally. But I am also a book-reader for the sheer personal pleasure of biographies that uncloak the complicated nuances of human history and character, as well as by total immersion in richly-detailed and expertly-plotted fiction.

Always eager myself to hear from friends and colleagues about new titles I might like, I thought I would share here six short reviews of books that captured my interest over the past few months. Enjoy!

Learning from leaders who couldn’t be more different: Tina Fey, Bossypants & Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs

Fey’s biography is full of laughs going back to early childhood humiliations, learning improv, breaking into SNL and finally to “30 Rock” creator and executive. Amongst the laughs are insights on leadership and motherhood. Use your energy on your work and ignore people who want to distract you. Don’t believe people who try to pit you against other women (“cat fight!”)—you have to compete against everyone. Don’t forget to check out her definition of a “crazy” woman—it uses language I can’t repeat in a family friendly publication!

Steve Jobs falls into the category of great man as enormous jerk. Extraordinary mind—check. Creative genius—check. Don’t build the best product the customer wants, build something no one knows is even possible and they will want it. Control everything! Believe your intuition even where others have greater expertise (e.g., iTunes and the music industry). Ego, yes, but the iPhone would never have happened without that self-confidence. Jobs proved it is possible to make people reach higher than they ever thought possible by sheer force of will; Isaacson’s biography, however, shows the human cost.

Harnessing the insights of neuroscience to understand yourself and influence your organization: Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit & Roy F. Baumeister, Willpower

These books use neuroscience to look at why some of us seem so much better at pushing through adversityand building habits that create success. In The Power of Habit, Duhigg examines the training of Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps and the habit of winning that was drummed into him by the reinforcement of cue, routine, and reward. Baumeister, meanwhile, illuminates research showing academic success is more dependent on “grit,” the ability to consistently work through obstacles, than IQ. Willpower isn’t an innate quality:  you aren’t born being able to eat just one chocolate chip cookie! You can build, store, deplete, and strengthen willpower. By creating good habits and building willpower, you can develop new personal strengths and organizational capacities. Harness the neuroscience to create an Olympic medalist, the safest factory, or the most profitable business.

Two very different books offer unique perspectives on a historical moment: Esi Edugyan, Half-Blood Blues & Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hilter’s Berlin

Edugyan’s prize-winning novel’s protagonists are jazz musicians living and performing in Germany at the dawn of WWII. Largely freer in Germany than in the racially segregated United States at the beginning of the story, the layers of fear, oppression, and, ultimately, death for some and escape for others build against a not-quite love story that pits ambition against self-preservation and rewards us ultimately with a surprising ending that is painful in its ambivalence.

Larson’s novel depicts statecraft through one family’s experience.It chronicles the lives of William Dodd, new US ambassador to Germany, and his 24-year-old daughter Martha during their four years in Berlin as Hitler rose to power. Outsiders both in Berlin and in the diplomatic corps, neither Dodd nor his daughter understood the impact of what they were witnessing. Entranced by the social whirl of Berlin, Martha romanticized Nazi officers, while Dodd underestimated his impotence even once he belated realized the gravity of the circumstances. Too alienated from corridors of power to be influential, Dodd became,ultimately, a tragic figure.

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