Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Puppet on a Chain: Alistair MacLean

A confession to begin with: this is the first Alistair MacLean book I’ve read. Though I had seen the film version of Guns of Navarone, I somehow had an impression that most of MacLean’s works were set in the sea, which is not particularly my locale. Hence, I stayed away from MacLean. But after a recent conversation with a few friends on authors in our growing years, I realized that MacLean was more than just a maritime master. So I picked up Puppet on a Chain and tried to mentally roll back the years and read it like I was in school.

Puppet is a racy, first person narrative that sustained my interest throughout. And even though the action unfolds in rapid succession through the book, it still gives you a sense of slowness – may be it is a function of the pace of life in Amsterdam. Ideal Sunday afternoon read for a crime lover, this.

Human life is not of much of a premium in Puppet considering that people seem to falling dead right through the book – some bizarrely, some expectedly, and some, surprisingly. On the contrary, our hero Paul Sherman appears invincible. He runs Interpol’s narcotic bureau in London, and comes down to Amsterdam on an assignment. And while at every turn, there is a murder attempt on him, he comes unscathed in every instance. Of course he has to, considering he is the hero, so much so that he escapes three near-impossible situations (or is it four?) on one single day towards the end. May be he could have been a serial hero in all of the author’s works – a la Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Simon Templar, Norman Conquest, and the like.

While the use of a puppet to transport narcotics (not an unusual idea, but an effective one nevertheless) gives it a physical dimension, the title also refers to the addicts being like puppets manipulated by the pushers and the powers-that-be (or shouldn’t be?). No wonder then, that the puppet is not the only aspect of the book, as Paul Sherman “considered the relationship between fast me with fast guns and pushers and sick girls and hidden eyes behind puppets and people and taxis who followed me everywhere I went and policemen being blackmailed and venal managers and door-keepers and tinny barrel-organs.” Sums up his opposition in one fell swoop. Some of the villain characters are interestingly portrayed. For fear of revealing some of the suspense, I shall not write more about them.

Amsterdam alone makes Puppet worth the read. I remember making a similar comment in my review of March Violets about how it made me get a feel of the streets of Berlin in the 1930s. Puppet does a like job for Amsterdam of the late 1960s and its surrounds. I haven’t come across another part of the world that befits this description.

Theft, apparently, was no problem on the island of Huyler, a fact which I found hardly surprising: when the honest citizens of Huyler went in for crime they went in for it in an altogether bigger way.

After reading Puppets, I can understand why MacLean had so many loyal readers as puppets on his chain of writing.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Case of the Bonsai Manager: R. Gopalakrishnan

No, don’t get misled by the title – this is not one of those riveting novels featuring the dapper Perry Mason and the charming Della Street. The sub-title, Lessons from Nature on Growing is a more accurate indicator of what the book is about.

Using animal behavior to derive learnings for human beings is as old as the concept of story-telling itself – Aesop’s Fables, the Hitopadesa, and the Jataka Tales are probably early examples of this. Of late, using animal stories as a metaphor for organizational learning has taken off quite significantly – Squirrel Inc. is an example of that. But Bonsai is different, because Gopalakrishnan uses the natural behavior of certain animals (many of them unknown and therefore esoteric for someone who is not an avid watcher of Discovery Channel or National Geographic Channel) and complements that with real-life business examples, especially from his personal life and those of the people he has worked with. Great concept, and lends itself to an interesting read. A different kind of business how-to book, surely.

Unfortunately, Bonsai suffers in execution.

With a title like the one it has, you expect a story of a manager whose career gets stunted, and a detailed analysis of how it turned out that way. But the bonsai manager seems to be just one interesting analogy in the book. And he keeps making sudden appearances in the narrative without any conceivable connection.

Some of the examples seem weak or forced or appear unconnected to the point being made. Moreover, the author also insists on displaying his erudition by bringing in examples from literature and history. Except that in quite a few cases, the examples don’t quite seem relevant, and there is not even an attempt to fully express some of the literary references, let alone explain them. Is the reader supposed to learn that a “very lyrical description by Vladimir Nabakov, author of Lolita, appears in his speech at Cornell about the transition of the caterpillar” and then do his / her own research to get access to that speech?

Authorial presence is usually considered a strong point in fiction. But the same probably does not hold good for non-fiction, even (especially?) memoirs. And if it is exercised by the excessive use of the perpendicular pronoun as is the case with Bonsai, all the more the pity. Add to that a truly humongous number of exclamation marks, and you get a marathon navel-gazing exercise. The sudden jumps in thought from one paragraph to another suggests the same thing as well. You almost get the sense that a series of post-dinner conversations (not formal talks) have been compiled and released in the form of this book. Was the editor overawed by the fact that the author is a senior corporate executive?

Speaking of editors, the book could have done with a good long copy-edit as well. Cavalier language, incorrect grammar and bad punctuation, random expansions of some abbreviations and not others, the odd missing definite article, bulleted lists that are not parallel in structure… Enough to turn a curmudgeonly reader, why even a grammatically unfussy reader, off.

As senior corporate executives reach the sunset of their illustrious careers, they justifiably seek to make a contribution to posterity, a legacy that lives beyond them, and perhaps R. Gopalakrishnan is no different. And he almost succeeds.

But, as Gopalakrishnan himself would admit, a good idea is only as good as its execution. That, sadly, is where Bonsai fails. It is a classic case of a missed opportunity, may be missed opportunities. There are possibly three books here – a connection between nature and business, a case study of a bonsai manager and how s/he became that way, and a memoir. May be Gopalakrishnan could have taken up one topic at a time, and considered three books. Or just used these undoubtedly interesting ideas in a post-retirement career as an after-dinner speaker – his style of writing suggests he may be quite good in that format.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Creating Minds: Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner’s lasting contribution to human psychology is perhaps the classification of the human mind into multiple intelligences, as expressed in books like Frames of Mind and Multiple Intelligences, among others. In Changing Minds, he focuses on creativity, quite often seen as an outcome of intelligence.

Changing Minds is a study of the life and times of seven eminent contemporary greats – Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, T. S. Eliot, Martha Graham, and Mohandas Gandhi. Gardner analyzes the life and achievements of each of these luminaries, and synthesizes the commonalities to, in a sense, the dimensions of creativity.

As is Gardner’s wont, he approaches the task in a structured manner, defining organizing themes, an organizing framework, and issues for empirical investigation, and identifying emerging themes. The last one, identifying emerging themes, is particularly interesting, because they have emerged out of the study of the seven individuals. In other words, Gardner seemed to have looked for a commonality across the seven individuals on some pre-determined parameters, but the two themes that emerged caught even Gardner by surprise.

The first self-confessing truth that Gardner talks about is that almost all creators (Gardner is unable to establish this clearly in all cases though, especially in the case of Gandhi), during the time of their important breakthroughs had some kind of a significant support system.

The first issue surfaced during examinations of the period during which a creator made his or her most important breakthrough. I knew that at least some creators had close confidants during this time. But what emerged from the study was more dramatic: not only did the creators all have some kind of significant support system at that time, but this support system appeared to have a number of defining components.

It is perhaps a slightly counter-intuitive argument because it is quite often felt that creative geniuses are reclusive individuals who achieve everything they do in spite of resistance from their environment, not because of support from it.

The second commonality that emerged unannounced is that each individual seems to have had to sacrifice something significant to achieve their creative breakthroughs.

My study reveals that, in one way or another, each of the creators became embedded in some kind of a bargain, deal, or Faustian arrangement, executed as a means of ensuring the preservation of his or her unusual gifts. In general, the creators were so caught up in the pursuit of their work mission that they sacrificed all, especially the possibility of a rounded personal experience.

While not surprising in itself, it suggests that at some level, creativity (interestingly referred to as the act of creation by Gardner in the aforementioned extract) demands its own pound of flesh.

Another insight that Gardner comes out with is the duration of time that it takes for an individual to achieve mastery in his / her m├ętier. And, astonishingly, in the case of all the seven individuals portrayed in this book, there has been a gap of at least ten years before they came out with creative breakthroughs in their fields. And even more staggeringly, it took them a similar time period for their next big breakthrough.

The structure of the book is biographical in nature, with separate chapters on each individual with synthesizing arguments interspersed. This leads to the interesting facets about each of the worthies. Depending on your comfort levels with certain domains, some chapters are easier to comprehend than others. (For instance, while I found it easy to follow the life and times of people like Freud, Eliot, and Gandhi, I quite got lost reading about Stravinsky and Martha Graham.)

In a study of characters as diverse as these and with the objective of establishing a common set of observations, it is inevitable that there are areas where force-fitting sets in a bit. The explanation of Picasso’s Faustian bargain is one such.

Picasso had promised God that he would stop painting in gratitude if Conchita’s [his sister] life were saved; and since this bargain had not been accepted, the deeply superstitious Picasso felt both free to do whatever he wanted in his professional and personal lives and concomitantly guilty at this hubristic seizure of power.

Another gap in the book is perhaps attributable to the fact that all the greats profiled are fairly recent figures and so Gardner seems to have a qualitative view of them. That Gardner has been inspired a lot by Freud seems to reflect in the almost-hagiographic profile of Freud. On the other hand, Gardner seems to be overly critical of Gandhi, focusing more on his negative aspects than in the case of the others. Surely each individual had two sides to his/her personality?

Notwithstanding these gaps, Changing Minds is an insightful read into the lives of seven people who fashioned the world in the 20th century. And considering the nature of the topic, a surprisingly easy one at that.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Interpretation of Murder: Jed Rubenfeld

A woman is found dead in her penthouse apartment in downtown New York; the next day, a beautiful heiress is found almost dead in her parent’s home, not too far away. The two crimes are so similar, that the perpetrator is unquestionably the same. Enter the investigators. And that is where The Interpretation of Murder is different – there are two parallel investigations, one by the police, and the other, by a psychoanalyst, Stratham Younger, with a little bit of assistance from a certain Sigmund Freud.

The story is set in 1909, the year Freud visited the U.S. for the only time in his life to deliver a series of lectures at Clark University. Of course, Interpretation is fictitious, but by virtue of it melding real characters (Freud and Carl Jung being the chief of them) with fictitious ones, it makes for an interesting read.

Interpretation is beautifully written (Jen Rubenfeld, a first-time author, is Professor of Law at Yale University) and brings to life the New York of the early 20th century very evocatively (including the construction of Times Square under the aegis of Mayor George McClellan). Apart from that, it also presents the psychoanalytical investigations of Stratham Younger in language that is non-technical and jargon-free. Considering the structure of the book, there are different narratives, and they are in different voices – it is an interesting approach, and has been handled very well, even though it hasn’t followed the usual style of each chapter focusing one strand.

If there is one area where Interpretation falters, it is in the treatment of the police investigation, consequent to which, the twists and turns towards the end of the book are a bit sudden, unbelievable and a touch too dramatic. Coroner Hugel is not characterized particularly well, and Littlemore, who is introduced as a novice assistant to Coroner Hugel, comes across as a parody for a detective. Initially, it appeared like a conscious characterization, but his subsequent activities belie this personality definition. Littlemore is probably a great opportunity missed in Interpretation.

The insights into and of Freud and Jung are fascinating, though it is set in a fictionalized environment. Freud’s praise for Jung is particularly interesting (He is more important than the rest of us put together), considering how the two actually fell out in real life. Clashes between the two are also brought out, particularly their views on incest.

History has it that Freud did not enjoy his trip to the U.S. at all, and it left some lasting scars in him. While there apparently is no official statement from Freud on this, Jed Rubenfeld tries to give it his own interpretation, putting the following words in Freud’s mouth.

This country of yours: I am suspicious of it. Be careful. It brings out the worst in people – crudeness, ambition, savagery. There is too much money. I see the prudery for which your country is famous, but it is brittle. It will shatter in the whirlwind of gratification being called forth. America, I fear, is a mistake.

Freud may well have actually said it.