Wednesday, September 25, 2019

"Bucky F*cking Dent" by David Duchovny - A Brilliant Use of Baseball as a Metaphor for Life and Overcoming Disappointment

The novel, "Bucky F*cking Dent,"  is not what I expected it to be; it is much more. Author David Duchovny - yes, that David Dochovny - is a gifted writer and an erudite student of history, philosophy, and culture. The name "Bucky Dent" sends a frisson up and down the spine of any Red Sox fan who has been paying attention since the watershed 1978 season.

You may recall that after a volatile regular season that saw the Red Sox sprint to a huge early lead in the American League East Division, they fell on hard times in July and the dog days of August and fell behind the Yankees. It took winning the last eight games of the season to draw even with the Bronx Bombers, setting the stage for a one game playoff. A coin flip determined that the pivotal game would be hosted by the Red Sox at Fenway Park, their "lyric little bandbox."

Bucky Dent was a light hitting shortstop penciled into the ninth position in the batting order. The Red Sox led the game 2-0 going into the seventh inning behind the shutout pitching of former Yankee hurler Mike Torrez. Early in the at bat, Dent broke his bat, and borrowed one from the on deck batter, center fielder Mickey Rivers. Dent had fouled off the first two pitches, and then took a cut at Torrez's next offering. The ball gently sailed toward the iconic Green Monster. Leftfielder, future Hall of Famer Yaz, camped under the high fly ball, ready to record the out. But a breeze blowing out toward the Wall turned what would have been an easy out in any other major league ballpark into a 3-run homerun.  At that was it. The Red Sox tried desperately to claw their way back into the lead, but the final score was Yankees 5 - Red Sox 4. The cancer that had been eating away at the soul of Red Sox Nation since 1918 - the Curse of the Bambino - rolled on like a juggernaut from the gates of Hell.

It is this historic baseball nugget that Duchovny uses as the seed around which he concocts a moving mythology about an estranged father and son duo - Marty and Ted. As the action of the novel begins, the two had not spoken in several years - Marty living n Brooklyn and Ted subsisting in a fourth floor walk-up apartment in Queens. Ted learns that Marty is dying of lung cancer, and decides to pay him a visit. He also learns from the old neighborhood gang that Marty's physical condition from day to day tends to wax and wane in sympathy with the results of the most recent win or loss by his beloved Boston Red Sox. Ted , despite his Columbia University degree, works as a peanut vendor at Yankee Stadium. He comes up with a plan to fool Marty into thinking that the Red Sox were continuing their winning ways, enlisting the support of the denizens of the neighborhood news stand, characters who had known Marty and Ted for decades. His goal was to maximize the number of good days that Marty would experience as the cancer ate away at what was left of Marty's body. Two significant women play important roles in the saga. Mariana is a "mortality coach," basically functioning as a hospice counselor who visits Marty on a regular basis. She and Ted develop a complex and tortuous  relationship. Maria is a former lover of Marty who comes back into his life during his final days.

Ted manages to score two tickets to the playoff game in Boston, and he and Marty embark on a road trip from Brooklyn to Boston. The description of the trip provides author Duchovny with an opportunity to use the trip as a metaphor for Marty and Ted and their lives:

"They drove farther north like that.In perfect loving antagonism. It occurred to Ted that maybe Marty was like all the red and gold leaves he saw burning on the trees. In nature, it seems, things reached their most vibrant and beautiful right at the point of death, flaming out with all they had - why not natural man? His father was red, green, yellow, and gold, like a beautiful bird falling from the sky." (p, 253)

The novel is deeply moving, and a fitting read for Red Sox fans, Yankees fans, and fans of great writing.



Monday, September 23, 2019

"Leading Change from the Middle" by Jackson Nickerson - A Practical Guide To Building Extraordinary Capabilities - Leading at The Crossroads of Change

There is a large body of works that address the challenges of leading organizational transformation and change. Most of these fine works address themselves to the person leading the organization in need of change. Author Jackson Nickerson has filled an important gap by examining the unique challenges faced by those in the middle of an organization - one or more levels down from the CEO - who face a mandate to lead change. "Leading Change From The Middle" is a very practical handbook for the would be change agent working from the middle of an organizational chart.

The gist of Nickerson's argument is that the change agent must identify potential stake holders involved in any planned change in each of four sectors. The sectors are:

  • Superordinates
  • Subordinates
  • Customers
  • Complementors/Blockers

For each of the categories, the author prescribes specific actions that must be taken to ensure maximum cooperation from stakeholders in the changes about to be made. The author suggests the acronym "ABBA" to help the reader to remember: Agree-In, Bee-In, Buy-In, and Allow-In. 

"Each approach provides communication, strategies, tactics, and sequencing of actions for leading change among stakeholders - activities collectively referred to as CoSTS." (p. 44) Throughout the book, Nickerson offers two contrasting case studies drawn from real world experience to highlight how the CoSTS principles can be applied in two very different situations.. Kurt is charged with reducing the time it takes within the Department of Defense to implement a new software program for soldier recruitment. Stephen is hired by a major metropolitan mayor to lead an initiative to create an urban agriculture program so the city will be regarded as the "Greenest" in America.

One strength of this model is that it takes into consideration the human element in leading change - the emotions that often get in the way of rational decision making. Nickerson offers the acronym "DEAF' to identify four key negative emotions that might cause stakeholders to block progress and change:  Disrespect, Envy, Anger, and Fear.

Among the components of the model I found most helpful were suggested questions that a change agent might ask a stakeholder who is their boss to ensure that Agree-In has been reached.

  • Which stakeholders, if any, will your supervisor want to personally engage and help manage
  • Will your boss manage and communicate with superordinates up the chain of command, or should you have similar conversations with them?
  • At what point will your boss intervene to help you overcome the resistance of a blocker, or to encourage a customer to participate?

These questions are emblematic of the practical nature of the information that the author provides in this book. Nickerson serves as Frahm Family Professor of Organization and Strategy at Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. He teaches a course in "Leading from the Middle" for the Brookings Institution.

The book is a welcome addition to evolving field of Change Leadership.


Thursday, September 19, 2019

"To The Elephant Graveyard" by Tarquin Hall - A Compelling Look At The Mind of A Rogue Elephant and Those Who Hunt Him

I had several reasons for wanting to read "To The Elephant Graveyard." I love elephants, and drink in anything I can learn about them -   especially how they live in their natural habitats. Second, the action of this book - a true story that reads like an adventure novel - takes place in the Northeast India state of Assam. My father spent part of WWII serving the U.S. Army Air Corps in Assam, so that part of the world has always held a certain level of intrigue for me.

I was initially concerned when I learned that journalist Tarquin Hall had written a book telling the story of a legendary elephant hunter. I have a particular disdain for those who hunt endangered species, especially elephants, so I was not sure how I would feel about the hunter who is on center stage of this narrative. I quickly learned that Dinesh Choudhury, the most acclaimed of all of India's elephant hunters, loves and reveres elephants. He only agrees to hunt those who have proven to be a significant danger to villagers. Such was the case of a rogue elephant who had murdered several villagers in remote locations. Author Hall persuaded Mr. Choudhury to take him along on the perilous trek to find and kill the rampaging rogue bull elephant.

The resulting account of their travels and adventures is told in cinematic prose, offering clear descriptions of actions and the motivations that undergirded them. It is a tale of government officials, hunters, mahouts, terrified villagers, and journalists who pit themselves against an elephant who had been driven mad by abuse at the hands of a prior owner. The story includes incidents of near misses, treks through lush forests and jungles, encounters with villagers and farmers, and an introduction into the small world of mahouts - those who train and handle elephants as a life's calling.

The result is a very readable book that has all the earmarks of a classic. Reading it has deepened my appreciation for elephants and those who strive to provide a balance between protecting their shrinking habitats while also protecting those they sometime endanger.



"Meditations of an Army Ranger" by Lt. Col. (Ret.) J.C. Glick and Dr. Alice Atalanta - A Well Written Warrior Philosophy for Everyone

Army Lt. Colonel J.C. Glick (Retired) has teamed up with Dr. Alice Atalanta to offer a pithy handbook that enables those of us who did not serve as special forces soldiers to adopt a Warrior Philosophy. The book is written in a clear and concise voice. Both authors make it clear that a deep understanding of classical philosophy - particularly Stoicism - lays the foundation for the Warrior ethos they describe in this book.

The book is divided into sections, each of which has a Latin title, cementing the feel that the authors are standing on the shoulders of classical thinkers and doers.

Exsuscito (Awaken) explains why philosophy undergirds everything that is to follow inths book.

Cogitare Aliter (Thinking Differently) offers sixteen different ways of thinking and acting to differentiate oneself from the typical herd mentality that is so easy to fall into. These include Motivation vs. Inspiration, Integrity s. Honesty, Discipline vs. Obedience, etc.

Habere et Esse (To Have and To Be)  explores the phenomena of Trust, Resilience, Initiative, and Courage.

Ducatus (Leadership) is a key section that offers practical examples of how the best leaders think, inspire, and motivate those whom they lead.

Electissimi (Elite) explores the nature of Greatness.

Finally, Vade (Go Forth) examines what it means to live a life of Purpose. The concept of Purpose is showing up in almost every book I have read in the past year that purports to address issues of leadership and growth. It is clear to many gifted authors that identifying Purpose and using that Purpose to drive decisions is a paramount ingredient in living a productive and satisfying life. This book is a welcome addition to the growing corpus of literature that addresses this crucial area of living.



"Smoke and Water" by Tai Le Grice - A Moving Coming of Age Story about Overcoming Personal Tragedy and Homophobia

Author Tai Le Grice has penned a  moving novel that tells the story of Eike Nylund. A star athlete, he was at swim practice when a fire swept through the family home and killed his parents and siblings, He arrived at home as it was being engulfed in flames. He foolishly and heroically rushed into the inferno, hoping to save family members. He ended up being severely burned, and spent weeks in a hospital burn unit recovering physically. The scars on his back were visible, but less visible were the emotional scars of survivor guilt. He was taken in by his loving and supportive grandparents, but abandoned swimming - until he met Damon King, Captain of the college swim team.

Damon not only became his support for re-engaging with the world of swimming, but became a close and cherished friend. Their friendship began to develop into something more intimate, but Damon's powerful father made sure that a message was sent that his son was not to be seen as a homosexual. Men were sent to beat up Damon, who ended up back in the hospital. And Damon disappeared, living under virtual house arrest to keep him from Eike.

The narrative explores the levels of courage that both Eike and Damon needed to discover in order to persevere in their lives and in their love. The story is filled with clearly drawn characters of several generations. It is a moving and well-written Coming of Age saga that speaks to its intended Youth Adult audience and beyond. The circumstances described in "Smoke and Water" are drawn from fictionalized interpretations of the stories of real individuals the author has known. It is an inspiring tale of courage against tough odds, with characters surviving despite being thrown into the proverbial deep end of the pool.


Monday, September 16, 2019

"Arrows of Fire " by Marlen Suyapa Bodden - The Aztec Empire and Montezuma Meet Cortes

The author of  "Arrows of Fire," Marlen Suyapa Bodden, has meticulously researched interactions between Hernan Cortes and Aztec Emperor Montezuma. This fact is clear from the extensive list of bibliographic resources listed at the end of the book, and by the vivid details in which she recounts battles and movements of troops within Mesoamerica. It did not surprise me to learn that the author is a New York City-based attorney with a reputation as an anti-war and anti-slavery activist. For much of the narrative of this compelling novel recounts the callousness with which human life was regarded by both sides - Spanish explorers and Aztec rulers. Human sacrifice was an important component of the Aztec religious belief system, and slavery, rape, and wholesale murder of the indigenous population with the trademark of Cortes and his ilk.

Another salient feature of this novel is the key role played by female Aztec warriors. We follow the story of Flower, a 12 year-old girl taken from her remote village by minions of Montezuma and carefully prepared to be the human sacrifice in the annual ritual to recreate the death of the goddess Coyolxauhqui. Flower was brought to the Aztec capital island city of Tenochtitlan where she was trained to be the pure avatar of the slain goddess. Part of her training involved being instructed in the fine points of archery by the warrior, Teputzitoloc. Against all odds and defying strict regulations meant to isolate Flower, the two fell in love. The warrior warned Flower of her true fate, and arranged to help her escape to join a growing band of rebel warriors who would fight both Montezuma and the Spaniards. Flower was taken under the wing of a seasoned female warrior, and eventually played a key role in an attempted assassination of Montezuma.

This book is a satisfying read, filling in blanks in my knowledge of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire. It is also a disturbing read because it throws a harsh spotlight on the racist assumptions that allowed European explorers to justify their wholesale destruction of the indigenous populations of the lands they stole and then claimed for the various crowns that had underwritten the cost of the expeditions. The author is a gifted story teller, combining vivid detail with historic accuracy She also has a knack for creating characters that I came to care about, which is always a mark of good writing.

This book is available on pre-order from Amazon, and will be released on October 14, 2019.


Tuesday, September 10, 2019

"Victoria's Voice" by David and Jackie Siegel - Turning Tragedy Into A Warning About Teen Drug Abuse

Victoria "Rikki" Siegel's life lasted only 18 troubled years. She died of an accidental overdose of a cocktail of drugs, including methadone. According to her father, co-author David Siegel, her descent into drug abuse began when a psychiatrist who saw her for depression and anorexia prescribed Xanax in ever increasing dosages.

After Rikki's tragic death, David and his wife, Jackie, vowed to devote themselves to warning other parents of teenagers about the dangers of drugs. A friend of Rikki had alerted the parents to the existence of a diary that Rikki had kept. Her dying wish had been that her parents would publish her diary as a cautionary tale to help others understand the troubled mind of a struggling teen girl.

The bulk of the book is comprised of reproductions of pages of the diary in Rikki's often scrawled handwriting. It can be difficult to read - because the writing is often barely legible, but also because her pain is palpable. Following the last entry in the diary, the book contains several appendices, including words spoken by family members at the funeral, and a compendium of information about drugs - prescription and illegal.

The family's affluent lifestyle plays a role in Rikki's journey. David founded the largest Time Share empire, Westgate Resorts. Jackie is the former Mrs. Florida. Both David and Jackie are deeply involved in the beauty pageant world. They also aspired to use their substantial wealth to build the largest private home in the U.S - an American Versailles - to house themselves, their eight children, and a menagerie of pets. A team of documentary filmmakers took up residence with the family for two years to chronicle the building of the mansion and the life of the family that hoped to someday occupy it. It is clear from Rikki's diary that the whole Versaille phenomenon caused her much embarrassment and resulted in bullying and ostracism at school.

One of the most helpful parts of the book is the thorough list of How To Spot Drug Use In Kids, as well as a comprehensive list of resources available to parents and teenagers. The book serves as a tribute to a life too soon cut short, and offers a set of signposts to warn others of the dangers of allowing gateway drugs - prescribed or bought on the street - to lead to tragic ends.