Month: March 2014

Book Review – Indispensable: Gautam Mukunda

In this “indispensable” guide to leadership, Gautam Mukunda attempted to answer a question scholars have debated for centuries. He set out to determine whether great times created great leaders or if extraordinary eras were the product of outstanding leadership. He also chose to address the question as to whether or not leaders really matter at all. An original approach to the analysis of leadership selection resulted.

 

The title derived from the infamous quotation attributed variously to Elbert Hubbard, Georges Clemenceau and Charles de Gaulle that “the graveyards are full of indispensable men.” Muknuna presented a unique thesis that he called “Leadership Filtration Theory”, or LFT for short. In essence, he broke down leaders into two types: Filtered Modal and Unfiltered Extremes. He defined the former as the ones who passed through an extensive vetting process to make it to the top. The later he categorized as those who managed to skip a thorough period of analysis, or “filtration”, on their way to the primary job. (Curiously, he classified five of the six best and five of the six worst American Presidents as “Unfiltered Extremes”. [Page 28]) As one would expect from an assistant professor in the Organizational Behavioral Unit at the Harvard Business School, the author delivered a copious study of both types to buttress his arguments.

 

As a student of business, history and leadership this book presented a huge appeal to me and didn’t disappoint. I thought Mukunda’s selection of examples from fields diverse as politics, business, the military and medicine made his overall concept more rounded.

 

While the first part of Indispensable dealt heavily with theory, the second section provided detailed case studies of various leaders. Mukunda showed them in situations that required serious decision making. The author sedulously analyzed how they made their choices and then tied them to his thesis regarding Leadership Filtration Theory. I liked the leaders the author selected. The stories about unique personalities such as Woodrow Wilson, Abraham Lincoln and Neville Chamberlain in crisis situations enlivened the book. While charts and statistical analyses appeared in the text, the author relied more on the vignettes to advance his argument. I thought that a better choice than simply using volumes of raw data. It made the book much more accessible and, dare I write this about a work published by the Harvard Business Review Press, entertaining.

                       

I took a lot away from Indispensable, some ideas of which I found counterintuitive. The author pointed out how most leaders aren’t charismatic (Page 13), although for those who are Unfiltered Extremes it serves as an intensifier. (Page 14) As I interpret this, while the majority of Filtered Modal leaders Mukunda studied didn’t possess charisma, all of the Unfiltered Extremes did. This concept intrigued me. I figured all leaders had some degree of charisma.

 

The author provided another fascinating revelation in stating that Unfiltered Extreme Leaders often battled some form of mental illness. (Page 14) Primarily these included narcissism and paranoia. (Page 15) He acknowledged that depression also plagued some of them creating a phenomenon called “depressive realism”. (Page 18) Ironically in the right situation these traits could serve beneficial purposes. For instance, a depressed person would be more risk averse and able to understand a situation in way someone more optimistic wouldn’t. An individual suffering from paranoia would see threats not as obvious to others.

 

This revelation about many leaders having suffered from mental illness troubled me. It may cause me sleepless nights well into the foreseeable future. As the author pointed out later in the book:

We know, however, that power changes people, and that it does so in predictable ways. Groups usually give power to those who display empathy and social skills. Once people have power, though, they act more impulsively and less empathetically. Power makes those who hold it more like sociopaths and more willing to dehumanize those who lack it. (Page 231)

 

I did catch two factual mistakes in the book. One page 165 the author wrote that Winston Churchill “held (his Parliamentary Constituency) Epping for the rest of his life.” Actually Churchill left Parliament several months before his death. He chose not to stand for election in October of 1964. He passed away in January of 1965.

 

In the section on Woodrow Wilson the author wrote:

…(he) abandoned the law to enter graduate school in political science at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland. There he wrote his first book Congressional Government, garnering rave reviews despite the fact he never even made the short trip to Washington to observe Congress. He decided against pursuing a doctorate and went to Bryn Mawr to teach. (Page 100)

In fact, Wilson did receive a PhD in history and political science from Johns Hopkins. The book that became Congressional Government started out as his doctoral thesis.

 

I disagreed with the author’s characterization of Neville Chamberlain. Muknunda wrote that a Filtered Modal such as Chamberlain would’ve performed well in ordinary circumstances. When faced with a situation that required extraordinary talent, he failed. (Page 154) That analysis seemed a bit glib to me. While I believe that Chamberlain’s quest to serve as the world’s peacemaker at best naïve and at worst arrogant, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to blame him for all the catastrophic mistakes that lead to war. 1920s and 1930s diplomacy was exclusively geared towards avoiding another World War I. (The author even noted the Kellogg-Briand Pact.) In retrospect, this led to an even greater much larger conflict. Chamberlain’s views at the time were well in-step with mainstream thinking.

 

In addition, as the author admitted, Britain wasn’t in a military position to do anything to stop the Third Reich’s territorial designs in the late 1930s. The UK did begin a military build-up under, not Churchill, but Chamberlain. The author even acknowledged that the next most likely Prime Minister at the time would’ve pursued the same policies. If Chamberlain had seen the true nature of Hitler’s designs and tried to oppose them, I think he would’ve ended up out in the wilderness with Churchill.

 

In a nut-shell, does leadership matter? The answer: it depends. The author concluded the book with the trenchant observation that “choosing a leader is about matching, not ranking.” (Page 231) In other words, management or the electorate needs to properly assess the situation before selecting the appropriate man or woman to lead it. The stakes have never been higher. As Mukunda wrote,

 

The escape from the tragedy—the potential triumph of leadership—lies in the discovery or creation of leaders who can resolve the dilemma, who can be both confident and humble as the situation requires. Holding anyone to such a standard is, by any measure, unfair. In today’s world, however, when leaders must make decisions of unimaginable complexity, whose consequences can be measured in trillions of dollars or millions of lives, holding them to any lesser standard is unthinkable. (Page 239)  

Advertisements

Music Review – Ozzy Osbourne: Live and Loud

Who would’ve thought someone with an appetite for rabid animals could turn out to be one of the greatest front men in Rock and Roll history? Nowhere is the extraordinary interplay between performer and audience more deftly displayed than on Ozzy’s 1993 release Live and Loud. Ozzy Osbourne built a rapport with his fans that I haven’t heard since the late James Brown’s 1962 performance on Live at the Apollo.

When I first heard Black Sabbath’s latest release, 13, it made me feel old. In my old age I can’t handle the modern Heavy Metal scene. So I had to go back and listen to some “classic”, mellower Ozzy. That inspired me to pull Live and Loud out of my CD collection and give it a listen. Just like every time I give Led Zeppelin discs a hearing, the monumental talent of the performer struck me just as it did the first time I heard his music.

Ozzy recorded Live and Loud during his 1991 – 1992 “retirement” tour. Fans now shed “No More Tears” as Ozzy thankfully re-considered. (If Ozzy is reading this: please stick to the music and give up television.) The audience can also be grateful for this monumental career retrospective from one of Rock’s most colorful characters.

This album had it all. The band played the classic Black Sabbath tracks us old timers can unwind to such as “Paranoid”, “War Pigs”, and even “Changes”. As an added bonus, the original members of the band re-united, thankfully not for the last time, to perform “Black Sabbath”.

Ozzy also included tracks from his solo career. The band cranked out killer versions of tunes from the Randy Rhoades era, as well. They included such gems as “Mr. Crowley”, “I Don’t Know” and “Flying High Again”. They also played many tracks from the No More Tears album as well as others.

I thought Ozzy’s back-up band outstanding. I liked the heavy bottom end tone Bassist Michael Inez used throughout the entire recording. To my ears it sounds like a lot of modern bass players put guitar strings on their instruments and crank the treble on their amps. It pleased me not hear that on this album. It always brings a smile to my face when the bass sounds like a bass.

I found Randy Castillo’s drumming competent. I did think him guilty of “overplaying” at several points throughout the album. I heard some bass rolls that seemed excessive. I thought he did some unnecessary snare rolls. Before readers comment and point out to me that’s what Heavy Metal drummers do, I still think some of Castillo’s playing excessive. I do concede, however, that he’s not as over-the-top as Mike Portnoy during his Dream Theater days.

The true highlight of Live and Loud was undoubtedly Zakk Wylde’s guitar playing. The tone he got out of his “Bull’s Eye” Les Paul Custom sounded both rough and clear at the same time. He got that legendary Gibson crunch tone on tracks like “Suicide Solution” while sounding great clean on “Goodbye to Romance”. While no Randy Rhoades or Tony Iommi, Wylde added his own unique voice to their guitar parts and made them his own.

The only criticism I have of this album is Ozzy’s repeated use of a certain four letter f-word.  (Hint: It wasn’t farm.) When I first purchased this album in the mid-1990s I lived with my parents. I positioned my sound system next to my bedroom window that overlooked my neighbors’ porch. While I thoroughly enjoyed the music on Live and Loud I couldn’t play it without head phones due to Ozzy’s repeated profanity. This was the one drawback to the album. Due to the sound quality, especially on the tone of Wylde’s guitar, this was an album I wanted to blast at full volume through my speakers. Unfortunately, it was only able to live up to half its title when I bought it.

Ozzy Osbourne’s tremendous passion for his music came through on every song. His sincere love of his fans was evident every time he addressed the audience. I’ve heard many live albums and been to my share of concerts. I’ve never heard a performer as effusive in his appreciation of his fans. After listening to the 1995 re-mastered version of Live and Loud, it’s we who should be thanking Ozzy.  

Music Review – Paul McCartney and Wings: Wings over America

I’d say maybe I’m amazed that it took so long for this album to be back in print again, but there’s no maybe about it. With the greatest of respect to those who still admit they ever listened to Peter Frampton, Wings over America was the greatest live album released in the 1970s. (Full Disclosure: I’m a huge Who fan, but even I reluctantly acknowledge it’s a much better album than Live at Leeds.) I wouldn’t describe it as recording of a great rock show, I’d call it a true tour-de-force. It featured Wings playing their biggest hits while they were in their prime. In addition, it included some stellar renditions of Lennon/McCartney classics.

 

Wings over America provided the total Paul McCartney experience. It showcased the full range of his musical skills as a singer/songwriter. Fans get to hear why he was one of the best bassists in the history of rock and roll on tracks such as the funky bluesy “Medicine Jar”. Some of his piano playing on “Maybe I’m Amazed” even gave Jerry Lee Lewis a run for his money. He also demonstrated his proficiency as a guitar player on the acoustic classic “Blackbird”.

 

It’s difficult to play any of the aforementioned instruments, let alone play them well. Sir Paul did this all, not only on the same album, but during the course of one concert! He earned a knighthood for that feat alone!

 

I first purchased this album 25 years ago when I started playing bass guitar. Yes, I started out as a bassist when I was three years old. At the time McCartney’s chops on his Rickenbacker 4001 impressed me, but I found the album disappointing. I didn’t like the fact that McCartney switched between bass and the other instruments. As I’ve matured musically, when I listen to Wings over America now I appreciate it from an overall song composition and arrangement perspective. Plus, even I have to admit, Denny Lane played some exceptional bass lines; especially on “The Long and Winding Road”. I enjoyed hearing a Fender P-Bass as well.

 

I thought the quality of musicianship on this album incomparable. McCartney selected an outstanding group of players to back Wings on this album. Jimmy McCullough did a superb job on lead guitar. I especially enjoyed his slide work on “Hi, Hi, Hi”. Denny Lane exhibited fantastic performances on rhythm guitar and bass. He did a nice job singing on a tune from his Moody Blues days, “Go Now”. Joe English held down the beat a bit more creatively than Ringo would have on these tracks. The horn section was great. And Linda McCartney, while no Rick Wakeman on keyboards, got the job done.

 

While I loved the live renditions of Beatles staples such as “The Long and Winding Road” and “Lady Madonna” the true highlight of this album was the acoustic set at the end of the first disc. Wings recorded this in 1976: years before MTV Unplugged made it cool to pull out acoustic instruments. This band performed the greatest acoustic set I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard some good ones. It opened with the Paul McCartney penned “Picasso’s Last Words”. It featured one of the greatest lyrics ever.  

Drink to me, drink to my health

You know I can’t drink anymore

Classic!

           

The set then progressed through Paul Simon’s “Richard Corey” and another McCartney tune, the mellow “Bluebird”. Then they got serious. The band played “I’ve Just Seen a Face” in a way that rivalled the version the Fab Four recorded. McCartney then swapped his 12-String for a 6 and performed solemn readings of “Blackbird” and “Yesterday”. I would’ve felt thrilled to hear the last two tracks once, let alone to have the opportunity to listen to the re-mastered versions on the disc.

 

The 2013 re-mastering of Wings over America is an absolute must for McCartney fans. It’s tough to beat the combination of great music with superb sound quality. Wings never sounded better.

Book Review: William Golding – The Spire

My writer friends are afraid to read William Golding. I take the blame for this. They tell me that they read Lord of the Flies and found it “too disturbing.” I respond that Golding used that book as practice. His pessimistic portrayal of human nature in some of his other words makes Lord of the Flies look like something out of Fantasy Island. If that doesn’t make them want to read more Golding I don’t know what would.

In all fairness Sir William Golding is my all-time favorite author. I’ve read work by every prose author who received the Nobel Prize in Literature, and Golding is undoubtedly the best. One of the most difficult challenges an author confronts is staying in the voice of the character. No one could do this more proficiently than Golding. His deftness at characterization went into overdrive in The Spire.  

Golding revived one of his best literary techniques in this story: the unlikeable protagonist. It took a special kind of author to make this the focus of the novel and yet have readers hang in there to the end. He pulled it off brilliantly in The Spire. It described Dean Jocelyn’s (perhaps insane) vision of building a 400 foot tall tower above his church. To make this even more interesting the tower was constructed on a very unstable foundation. Golding could have stopped there, but he decided to make the story even more intriguing. Jocelyn repeatedly made references to miracles, an angel guiding him and God wanting this tower to be built. Through this exposition Golding made it pretty clear that this whole situation would not end well. His choice of Jocelyn’s voice to tell the story enabled readers to understand that this is more of a monument to him than anything else.

One memorable scene occurred when one of the workers fell to his death during the construction. Golding wrote:

In this dark and wet, it took even Jocelyn all his will to remember something important was being done; and when a workman fell through the hole above the crossways, and left a scream scored all the way down the air, which was so thick it seemed to keep the scream as something mercilessly engraved there, he did not wonder that no miracle interposed between the body and the logical slab of stone that received it. (Page 49)

In this one, admittedly very long, sentence, Golding truly defined the core essence of his protagonist. It was a fascinating about face from Jocelyn’s inner monologue where he thought, “Lord, I thank thee that Thou hast kept me humble!” (Page 18)

With writing like this, Golding humbled my faith in my own writing ability!

 Another major highlight to The Spire came through Golding’s beautiful use of language. He began his literary career as a poet, and it showed in this book. One phenomenal example:

What can I do on this day of days, when at last they have begun to fashion my vision in stone, but give thanks?

Therefore with angels and archangels-

Joy fell on the words like sunlight. They took fire. (Page 17)

Another outstanding simile: “Vanished like a raindrop in a river.” (Page 180)

The most original use of language by far occurred in the description of the “singing stones.” Throughout the book as the spire rose the stones made an “eeeeeee” sound that Golding eloquently described as “singing.” I could actually hear the noise as I read the book. I’ve never before had that happen to me. I’ve got to give major kudos to Mr. Golding on this one.

There were a lot of other great plot points and story sparks in the book. I thoroughly enjoyed the surprise twist as to how Jocelyn got the job of leading the monastery. I won’t spoil the fun for readers here. I will report: Golding did an awesome job flexing his creative muscle on this one. If you’re troubled by the idea of using “miracles” as a substitute for sound engineering practices, I envy you the thrill of reading what made all this possible.

I think of William Golding as one of the greatest novelists who ever lived. In fact, I have a photo of him on my writing desk. It’s staring at me as I’m crafting this review. The Spire stood out as a great example of Golding’s superlative talents. I wrote earlier that he held a pessimistic view of human nature. To be perfectly fair to him, he always disagreed with that statement. He once said something to the effect, “If you hold up red and blue together the red will always stand out.” The red in this case meant the negative. With the greatest of respect I think he refuted his own argument in The Spire. In spite of reading a 200 plus page story regarding an unlikeable narrator pursuing an obsessive quest, what stood out from The Spire was Golding’s incomparable talent as a wordsmith and storyteller.  

           

           

 

           

Hail to the King

There’s only one king of rock and roll. Fans affectionately know him collectively as “Crimso”, others attach the more formal appellation King Crimson. I recently pulled The 21st Century Guide to King Crimson Volume One 1969 – 1974 out of my archives. Even listening to it now, I’m struck by just how original and innovative their music was in their heyday. You know a band was ahead of its time when hearing music they recorded over forty years ago you think it would revolutionize music if recorded today. There’s no greater example of that than the tracks from In the Court of the Crimson King.

King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp did an exceptional job remastering these cuts. When I crank songs such as “21st Century Schizoid Man” and “Epitaph” I feel like I’m in the sound booth with the recording engineer. The box has every song from the album, although the version of “Moonchild” is abridged. I’ve heard most of these songs on previous releases, but the sound quality on the box makes it well worth the expense alone.

The box also included five live tracks recorded by the same line-up that recorded Court. The true highlight for me was “Mars: The Bringer of War.” It’s a version of the first part of Gustav Holst’s The Planets performed by a rock band. The arrangement would’ve made the composer proud. The piece increased in volume throughout building to a loud crescendo at the end. I swear my house shakes when I play it at full blast. The “Mellotron” does not reflect its name the way this group utilized it. Keep in mind this is from a band substantially influenced by classical music theory. All this in an era before Heavy Metal came to prominence.

While these songs make the box set well worth the cost and time to listen to it: there’s much more. Fripp included a disc of studio material from the Fripp/Wetton/Bruford/Cross era of the band. This one has some of my all time favorite prog-rock masterpieces. Crimso classics such as “Red”, “Easy Money”, and “Larks Tongues in Aspic Part II” appear in their entirety. A shortened version of “Starless” is on there as well. The way the disc is mixed makes it so all the tracks lead into one another. I thought that a very cool feature.

As with the earlier incarnations of the group, this line-up also has a live disc dedicated to it. The true mother lode on that one is a live instrumental improv called simply “Asbury Park” after the location the band recorded it. Imagine if you will a hybrid of classical music, heavy metal, and funk. If you don’t think a group of musicians could pull this off, listen to this track. It really defines the essence of what “Crimso” was all about in the mid-1970s.

The only real criticism I have of this box is the same critique fans have of any compilation: I don’t agree with all the song selections. The compendium has four different versions of “21st Century Schizoid Man”; one studio and three live performed by various incarnations of the band. None are of the same quality as the version the original line-up performed, but I can understand why Fripp chose to include them. To this day it stands as Crimso’s signature song. On the piece from the Earthbound album, Fripp chose to excise Boz Burrrell’s vocals in lieu of the instrumental parts. (The late Burrell went on to play bass guitar for Bad Company. To be fair to him, he was a great musician, but he was a much more proficient bassist than rock vocalist. Then again, so was John Wetton.)

I really liked the inclusion of a live version of “Easy Money”. It’s certainly one of the best tracks in the King Crimson catalog. I just didn’t care for this hybrid version of two different performances. The band played the song regularly during the early to mid-1970s. Fripp had myriad other renditions to choose from. He included some great recordings of it on the 1992 box set The Great Deceiver. I’m not sure why he didn’t go with a more powerful recording here.

And my big complaint: some songs from The Great Deceiver appeared on this box. I can’t wrap my mind around why Fripp didn’t include “Doctor Diamond”. That song had a mind-twisting time signature even by King Crimson standards. Since The Great Deceiver is now out of print, I don’t understand why “Doctor” wasn’t added to this box. It would have truly enhanced the song selection.

I would strongly encourage any Progressive Rock fan to give The 21st Century Guide to King Crimson Volume One a listen. I recall reading an interview with John Wetton (Bass/Vocals 1972 – 1974 ) back in the late 1990s. He said that whenever he played at Progressive Rock Festivals he’d listen to the new bands and smile. He thought they sounded a lot like Crimso did back in the 1970s. Based on Mr. Wetton’s observation, I’d say why listen to the imitators? Why not pay court to the grand-daddy of them all, King Crimson?

Restaurant Review – Pho, Yeah!

If you like vegetables and sugar, have I got the place for you. I recently dined at my favorite Vietnamese food establishment. Pho Xinh is conveniently located at the Centerton Square complex in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. They offer a range of fine Vietnamese cuisine including one of my all-time favorite dishes: pho.

 

For those readers who don’t share my adventurous approach to dining out, pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup. I know that many Americans perceive food from the Orient as well, “different.” However, the ingredients in this meal should be very familiar to anyone. It consists of rice noodles, onion, scallions and cilantro. A dish containing basil, bean sprouts, jalapeno and limes is provided separately. Diners can add as much of or as little of them to the soup as they like. Patrons also have the option of a variety of meats. They include shrimp, fish, steak, chicken, and brisket among others. On my latest visit to Pho Xinh I sampled the fish pho. Regular readers of my column are aware of both my love of seafood and my need for brain food. I relished the opportunity to indulge the two in one sitting.

 

Please be forewarned: jalapenos are very hot. Hot soup is also very hot. If you choose to add the peppers: be very careful before putting them into scalding hot soup. I like my pho to have just the right kick. I use the Thai Peppers from the condiment rack on the table. Be extra forewarned: Thai Peppers are even hotter. In addition, they tend to settle at the bottom of the bowl. If you place them in the soup, do so sparingly. Do not chug the soup when you get to the end. You will be sorry…quite possibly for days to come.

 

If you do enjoy hot dishes, and like me, are looking for something to help clear your sinuses as allergy season is upon us, Pho Xinh also serves Hue’s Style Spicy Beef Noodle Soup. I haven’t tried this in a while, but it is excellent and extremely spicy. I enjoy it, but it may be too hot for some diners. Just as a friendly bit of advice: you probably will want to take a sip prior to adding jalapenos or Thai peppers. My guess is that diners will be spicy enough without them.  

 

I know it’s hard to believe that a bowl of soup could be filling enough for one meal. Pho isn’t like an appetizer one gets with a main course: it is a main course. I’ve never finished it and not felt completely satisfied with the meal. The ingredients may seem pretty simple, but the refreshing taste makes it very distinct. The fish pho—or Pho Ca Vien—had a bit of a sour taste as a lot of Oriental dishes do. I more than offset this by washing it down with a Thai Iced Tea. This beverage tasted sweet and creamy almost like an iced cappuccino. The flavor pleasantly surprised me. I’ve had Vietnamese Coffee before, so it shouldn’t have amazed me that other drinks from that part of the world have the same sugary taste.

 

As I wrote I’ve never eaten pho and still felt hungry. On this occasion I didn’t want to take a chance, though. I began my meal with the Spring Rolls, in honor of the new season. I don’t typically order appetizers, but was glad I did on this occasion. It contained vegetables, Asian herbs and spices, held together in an egg roll coating. A syrupy carrot sauce accompanied it for dipping. I still remember my mother admonishing me to eat my greens. With vegetable dishes like the ones at Pho Xinh, I’m sure glad I kept up the habit.

 

At dinner’s conclusion I had to wrap up my dining experience with something really unusual. I saw it on the menu earlier and just had to try it: I ordered the Avocado Shake. There are those who say avocado has no flavor. They’ve obviously never had this. I’d encourage them to sample this drink. I could really taste the milk shake while at the same time the avocado flavor steadily replaced it. For diners looking to try something like they’ve never had before, I’d encourage them to give this beverage a shot. I understand it’s not something everyone would care for, but it’s certainly worth at least one try.

 

I thought the staff very polite, friendly and courteous. Between all the sugar and caffeine I consumed I may not have been the easiest customer for them to handle. If that was the case they certainly didn’t show it.  I found them extremely professional and customer focused.

 

My only criticism involved the music. When I’ve dined at establishments featuring non-American food they’ve typically played music from that country. At Pho Xinh they played soft jazz over the loud speaker. Personally, I would’ve preferred to hear music from the Orient. I thought it would’ve added to the ambiance better.

 

Pho Xinh doesn’t just limit their menu to pho. They offer a variety of Vietnamese cuisine. Many other tasty looking choices are available that I haven’t had the opportunity to try yet.  My review focused on the pho just because it’s one of my favorite meals, especially on cool days. In the event you’re in the South Jersey area and would like to sample some fine food from the Orient I’d strongly recommend Pho Xinh. Would I encourage readers to try the noodle soup? “Pho, yeah!”  

           

Book Review: Barry Unsworth – Sacred Hunger

“Nothing a man suffers will prevent him from inflicting suffering on others.” (Page 613) I found it rather apt that this historical novel chronicled the voyage of a slave ship. For the author himself took readers on a journey. Not a voyage to some foreign locale, but a sojourn to define the very core of human nature itself.  

The title of the book derived from the following line delivered by Delblanc, a secondary character, of all things.

‘Money is sacred, as everyone knows,” he said. ‘So then must be the hunger for it and the means we use to obtain it. Once a man is in debt he becomes a flesh and blood form of money, a walking investment. You can do what you like with him, you can work him to death or you can sell him. This cannot be called cruelty or greed because we are seeking to recover our investment and that is a sacred duty.’ (Page 325)

This story reminded me of works such as William Golding’s sea trilogy, To the Ends of the Earth, and Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. I recognized their influences as I read the section where Captain Thurso threw ill slaves overboard so he could collect insurance money. I recalled the author’s description of the Captain as a man who “despised cruelty, as he did compassion, and all other redundant shoots of the human spirit.” (Page 114) Unsworth also portrayed the captain as, “a simple man, being an incarnation, really, of the profit motive, than which there can be few things simpler.” (Page 382) While doing a lot of cringing, I had a pretty good idea where Unsworth would take his narrative. But, like the truly great ones, the author sprung a magnificent plot twist that completely changed the tone of the whole story. I won’t ruin the pleasure for readers by spoiling it here.

My favorite plot twists are the ones I don’t see coming, but still don’t feel cheated as a reader.  That’s how I would describe the one Unsworth used in Sacred Hunger. The only real foreshadowing I noticed occurred in the section where Unsworth described, “the man who was to have been his father-in-law.” (Page 385) This brought to mind the writing of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. I always enjoy reading well-read authors.

Sacred Hunger provided some vivid depictions of the better angels of human nature, to paraphrase James Madison. Unsworth’s deft skill as a writer shone in such sections. Many authors struggle to do this well in a book detailing happy event. Few could write such prose in a story involving a slave ship. One of the most moving passages read:

Love does not stand still, as everyone knows; it is always adding to its own shape whether by advance or retreat. Wounds can be absorbed, but only like elements embodied in a story; they are always there, part of the meaning. (Page 226)

Another memorable line read, “That a man engaged in this cruel trade still deserved not to be treated with cruelty seemed a mystery to Paris rather than a truth; but it was one that contained a strong imperative for him.” (Page 266)

I thought this book engrossing and difficult to put down. The author did an exceptional job stimulating my curiosity to find out what would happen next. I did have a few critiques. Above I cited some examples of how the author used language beautifully. I located some other parts that should have been much better. Here’s an example.

But Hughes, high up on the mainmast top setting the small sails, and Morgan, who was standing outside the galley to get some air, and Wilson and Sullivan smoking on the forecastle, and those of the slaves who happened to find themselves against the starboard rail…(Page 347)

Please. While reading this my mind was thinking, “And then this one time at band camp…” This blurb contained a lot of unnecessary detail that broke the narrative flow. In addition it came at a tense point in the story.  Unsworth won the Man Booker Prize for this novel in 1992. I’m hopeful that used some of the prize money to hire a better proofreader for his next book.

My main criticism involves the epistemiological paradigm Unsworth applied to the book. He thoroughly covered the issue of race relations between Europeans and Africans. He even explored European relations with Indians in the New World towards the end of the book. I thought his lack of attention to gender relations glaring. His described a utopian community in the Florida wilderness not just male dominated; no female voice spoke in this section. Due to the nature of the settlement I found this very bewildering. I really wanted to know what the female inhabitants thought of the living arrangements there. As Unsworth used the omniscient point-of-view I’m not sure why he didn’t explore this in more detail. It would’ve made the book much more interesting. (Read it and you’ll understand exactly what I mean.)

Sacred Hunger provided readers with a portal into the core of human nature itself. I came away with a deeper appreciation for dignity and a more positive outlook on human nature. As Unsworth wrote, “Grief works its own perversions and betrayals: the shape of what we have lost is as subject to corruption as the mortal body.” (Page 7) To anyone looking for a deeper insight into the human experience look no further than Sacred Hunger.             

              

Book Review – Power by Jeffrey Pfeffer

Jeffrey Pfeffer has that unusual ability to present common sense in such a way that makes readers like me think he could trademark it. Of the myriad so-called “gurus” among management theorists working today, Jeffrey Pfeffer’s practical “real world” ideas about attaining power make him truly unique. I’ve been feeling as though my capabilities to influence have been waning a bit lately. After all, it’s been a good three-and-a-half years since I’ve been president of anything. To rectify this I sought out some advice from the master. Like Luke Skywalker under the tutelage of Yoda I recently re-read his 2010 opus Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t.

Pfeffer based this book on his “Paths to Power” course that he’s taught at the Stanford Business School. I’ve always longed to get sound business advice from one of world’s preeminent institutions on the subject. Of course, like most people, I don’t want to pay the stratospheric tuition for it. Plus, I’m a realist. I’m not “one of the best schools in the world” material. I had to take advantage of this great opportunity. Dr. Pfeffer and his book didn’t disappoint me.

Power presented a number of fascinating counter-intuitive ideas for attaining power. I’ll cover a few of them in this essay. The one that really grabbed my attention involved the down side of intelligence. One passage in the book stuck with me. It read as follows:

            …Intelligence, particularly beyond a certain level, may lead to behaviors that make acquiring or holding on to influence less likely. People who are exceptionally smart think they can do everything on their own and do it better than everyone else. Consequently, they may fail to bring others along with them…(Page 56)

Pfeffer went on to point out that much ink has been spilled (and gigabites used) on the subject of smart people making poor decisions. (Page 56) He referenced books such as The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam and The Smartest Guys in the Room, the chronicle of the Enron disaster, by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind.

After getting through Pfeffer’s disquisition on the perils of intelligence for once I felt happy that I’m not smart enough to get into Stanford.

Another piece of perspicacious advice I picked-up in the book entailed how behaviors shape our attitudes. (Page 89) I’ve always thought the process went the other way, but Pfeffer presented solid evidence why it doesn’t. He quoted Michigan professor Karl Weick saying, “I know what I think when I see what I say.” (Page 90) He also used a reference from Psychology in the form of Leon Fetinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance. This concept is a high minded way of expressing the idea that people “seek to avoid inconsistency.” A good way individuals do this is trough having attitudes match behaviors. (Page 90)

My favorite bit of guidance in Power came from Keith Ferrazzi, the author of Never Eat Alone. (Full Disclosure: As I’m writing this piece I’m eating alone. As I mentioned earlier: I’m not the smartest.) I found a great anecdote about him that I’ve used in job search seminar’s I’ve hosted. Pfeffer described an unusual request Ferrazzi made of Pat Loconto, the former head of Deloitte Consulting, when the later offered him a job. Ferrazzi said that he would accept the position on one condition. He insisted on having dinner with Loconto once a year. This may sound like a very strange demand, but it gave Ferrazzi access to the main player in the organization. (Page 75)  

The one unifying theme of Power was that anyone can attain it. That’s helpful for me. I’ll keep readers posted on how my own path to power progresses. As I wrote I haven’t been president of anything in a while. I’ve also been very candid about the fact I’m not the most intelligent. After reading the book I’m starting to think running a small non-profit organization may have been setting the bar a little low. Maybe there’s a more prominent presidency someone like me can aspire to…

The Keegan Next Door

We always hear these stories about living next door to an unassuming person with a mysterious secret: one that makes you say, “I can’t believe it! I’ll never look at that person the same way again!” I’ll let you in on a little secret about me. This will be just between us, so don’t tell anybody, but I just might be the Keegan next door. While I don’t claim to have the same depth or breadth of knowledge as the great military historian Sir John Keegan, I just might have some interesting tidbits of information about the subject that I gleaned from, of all things, my research into my own family genealogy. I’ll share some of them with you.

It’s always amazed me the wealth of genealogical information a person can find just looking around his/her attic. My Great-Grandfather, Mike Stephany, served in the First World War. I found a lot of information about his service without leaving the house. I have the pair of binoculars he used while serving in combat. When I was a kid I felt privileged that I was the only person my own age who had an actual pair of them. It wasn’t until I got older that I began to really appreciate the genuine historical artifact they were. His unit number “313 F(ield) A(rtillery)” is stamped on the case. It’s a very interesting and humbling experience to hold something that he used while serving our country in combat.

While the binoculars are nice, the real mother lode is a book published in 1920 that my great-grandfather owned. It’ called A History of the 313th Field Artillery, U.S.A. This was an absolute treasure trove for me as a military historian/genealogist. The chapters were written by various officers who served in the unit. It provided a very graphic account of what day-to-day life was like for the men of the 313th Field Artillery. It’s still in print today if you want to check it out. There are several books with a similar title. Col. Charles Herron is one of the authors of this one. I’d recommend it to fans of Sir John Keegan’s The Face of Battle. It also features numerous pictures that show the lugubrious desolation of the French landscape during the Great War. Aside from the first hand information about military history, there is a section in the back that lists everyone who served in the unit. This is the part where I learned that my great-grandfather was promoted to Private First Class on the very last day of the war! (November 11, 1918)

Another artifact I have is my maternal grandfather’s, Jack McKeon’s, helmet that he wore during the Second World War. I also have his Purple Heart. When people see the helmet, they don’t need to ask me why he received it. The helmet has an entry and exit wound. The metal exterior is just as mangled today as it was when my grandfather was hit in 1944. I remember him telling me the story of why he still had the helmet. He said that when he was wounded the army told him to turn in the helmet so they could give him a replacement. He refused. Since the helmet saved his life, he insisted on finishing the war with it. When my grandfather said something it wasn’t open for discussion, so the army relented and let him keep the helmet. When the war was over and my grandfather received his discharged stateside, the ordinance officer told my grandfather to give him the helmet as it was the property of the U. S. Government. My grandfather answered by saying that army told him to turn in the helmet when he was wounded due to the damage. That convinced my grandfather that the army felt the helmet lacked value and didn’t have any need for it, anyway. He demanded to keep it. Today that helmet is sitting on my bureau.

There’s another lesson I picked up from my combination of military history with genealogy: I mentioned that my grandfather told stories. One of his favorite topics of conversation was his experience in the Second World War. I remember when I was a teenager who loved history, I’d walk the mile over to his house and listen to him tell me all about it. Looking back over that now, it’s amazing how something like history can being together people two generations apart. My grandfather also had a book about the history of the unit he served in during the Second World War. (He served in the 314th Regiment of the 79th Infantry Division for you history buffs out there.) I inherited it when he passed away twenty five years ago. I’ve read countless books on military history, but in all this time, I’ve never read that one. In retrospect, maybe I liked spending time with him more than I liked hearing his war stories.

I don’t claim to be the next Sir John Keegan—his blog is certainly more popular, ahem–, but I have learned a number of things about military history that most people don’t know simply by looking at artifacts in my own possession. If you’re interested in the subject, take a look around your home. You probably have a number of unique items with a story to be told. They could very well be things you see every day. (As I’m writing this from my father’s office I’m looking at my dad’s medals from the Viet Nam War. He has the South Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry and the Army Commendation Medal among others.) If you take the time to tell that story who knows: in a couple of years people won’t be calling you the Keegan Next Door they just might be calling the next military historian the you next door.

Ireland Comes to Delran – A Review of Dooney’s Pub and Restaurant

In the spirit of the season I know many readers will be looking for a great way to commemorate St. Patrick’s Day. I thought it very topical to review a local Irish Pub. If you happen to be spending this March 17th in the South Jersey area and are interested in a fun dining experience, I’d recommend Dooney’s Pub and Restaurant located in Delran, NJ.

With the understanding that there’s only so much one can do with the usual Irish triumvirate of ham, cabbage, and potatoes Dooney’s varies up the menu. I’ve mentioned in this column before how much I enjoy seafood. This eatery offers some of the more interesting ones I’ve tried. The Blackened Mahi Mahi Sandwich is one of my favorites. (Before readers criticize me for eating this, allow me to remind everyone: one of the perks of being human is sitting at the top of the food chain. Live with it.) I’ve also savored the Fish Tacos they serve. Both feature a spicy Thai mayo that gives these meals just the right pop without being so hot they ruin the dining experience.  I applaud Dooney’s for managing this difficult balance.

Dooney’s features a number of chicken dishes as well. I’m a big fan of the Tuscan Chicken Sandwich. People I know who don’t like chicken have added the following corollary to an old adage, “everything tastes like chicken especially chicken.” I’d point out to them that this is one of the more savory versions of it that I’ve had. It comes with roasted red peppers, spinach, and provolone cheese on a bun. I like the addition of the spinach in lieu of lettuce. It gives the fowl a slightly different flavor while still allowing the sandwich to “taste like chicken.” I happen to like this species of fowl.

Of course, no Irish establishment would be complete without corn beef on the menu. I rarely pass on an opportunity to have a Reuben for lunch. Dooney’s has a good one. They also offer a similar sandwich called an Irish Paddy Melt. I’d classify this as an upscale version of the Reuben. The latter comes with swiss cheese, caramelized onions and Russian Dressing on Grilled Rye. I like the sandwich and it’s very good. As a traditionalist, however, the Reuben appeals more to my tastes.

If you don’t like chicken and beef, Dooney’s recently added a Three Grain Veggie Burger to their menu. This is another unusual dish, but one that’s well worth trying. Typically anything with vegetables tastes a little bland. When I noticed it advertised I figured I’d have to drown it in ketchup to get it to taste good, but I was mistaken. This burger does have a pretty tasty flavor to it on its own. That alone makes it worth ordering. I’m a huge Reuben fan, but I’ve found myself switching over to the Veggie Burger whenever I stop at Dooney’s for lunch.               

No true Irish establishment would be worthy of the name unless they sold good potatoes. Dooney’s offers the best potato chips and French Fries around. To my palate they taste like they came from real, fresh potatoes. The ones I’ve had at other places have a processed or plain flavor. I don’t have that complaint about the ones they offer at Dooney’s. They’re crisp and would make Ireland proud.

To the relief of friend and foe alike, I quit drinking quite some time ago. I’ll have to leave the review of beer and spirits Dooney’s serves to people more qualified. Well, I don’t know that anybody would be, but let me say I should leave it to people who’ve sampled them in the recent past.

Dooney’s is a great place for a good meal. The friendly and professional demeanor of the staff makes the dining experience there all the more enjoyable. If you’re disappointed that St. Patrick’s Day only comes once a year here’s an opportunity to celebrate it every day. For a little bit of Ireland in the South Jersey area, you can’t go wrong with Dooney’s Pub and Restaurant in Delran, NJ.