The full title of this book is “Guitar Man – A Six String Odyssey, or, You Love That Guitar More Than You Love Me”. It’s the autobiographical tale of a Brit named Will Hodgkinson, who takes up the guitar in his mid-thirties. The interesting twist here is that the author sets himself a goal of performing in public within six months. That would be a bold move for anyone, but especially so for a guy with a job, a wife, a couple of kids, no prior musical experience and a self-proclaimed lack of talent. He has a few factors on his side, however: a long held dream, a few eccentric and marginally musical friends, and a long-suffering but ultimately supportive wife.
Here’s a brief excerpt from the first chapter:
The golden light of creation was shining. Harmony filled the world. I closed my eyes and let the guitar resonate with the sweet vibrations of eternity.
“STOP IT! I can’t stand that guitar. It’s driving me crazy!”
I was getting used to that reaction from my wife. It seemed that my every rendition of the chorus of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by The Rolling Stones was like a needle piercing the nerve endings of her brain. But it wasn’t [my wife] who was complaining. It was our three-year-old son Otto.
“I don’t want you to play your guitar any more”, he cried, sticking his fingers in his ears. “I don’t like it. It’s horrible.”
I had only had the guitar for two weeks…and my family were already rebelling against any attempts to bring a bit of musical provenance into their lives. But I had set myself a task which, having been foolish enough to boast about, there was no getting out of: to perform before an audience in six months’ time. This was before I had picked up a guitar, when the idea still sounded fun; a way of forcing myself into doing something I had only talked of for the last two decades. The possibilities of life are infinite, limitless and exciting before you start attempting to do something. But as soon as you apply yourself to learning a new skill, you are confronted with the severity of your limitations.
So begins a journey of both musical education and self discovery. At times it becomes a sort of musical travelogue. Hodgkinson’s quest takes him to some interesting places, including London’s famous guitar mecca Denmark Street, and a trip to the deep south to explore the roots of American blues. He meets a few famous musicians along the way, including Johnny Marr, Roger McGuinn, Cat Power, P.J. Harvey and others.
I enjoyed this book. If you’re interested in playing guitar or the history of rock and roll, I think you’ll enjoy it too.
Oftentimes, when I start a new book my initial enthusiasm gets me through the first chapter or two. Then comes the moment of truth. If the author doesn’t succeed in capturing my pathetically short attention span, I find myself checking my progress every few pages. It’s the sound of my bored brain repeatedly asking myself “Are we there yet?”. But every once in a while I pick up a book which gives me the opposite feeling – instead of wondering when I’ll be done, I want it to last forever. “The Informant: A True Story” is a long book – over 500 pages, but I never once noticed what page I was on. It’s the kind of book you’ll stay up all night to finish.
The story revolves around a covert FBI investigation into a massive global price fixing scheme involving a number of companies, chief among which is a highly profitable and very powerful company Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). The FBI is lucky to have on their side Mark Whitacre, a senior Vice President at ADM who turns government witness against his employer. Whitacre is the most highly placed cooperating witness in the history of undercover FBI investigations. The ensuing twists and turns might seem too far fetched if they weren’t all true. Eichenwald foreshadows the developments thusly:
By the night of the raids in June 1995, the government had amassed an arsenal of evidence unprecedented in a white-collar case. Despite the secrecy of the criminals, despite their ability to spend millions of dollars on a defense, despite the political influence they could bring to bear, the possibility that they could beat back the prosecution seemed ludicrous. They were trapped – trapped by their own words and images, forever captured on miles of magnetized plastic ribbon. The government agents did not know whether Whitacre would emerge as a hero or an unemployed martyr, but they felt sure of their investigation. That night, they could hardly be blamed for believing that this case was all but over.
But it would be their last night of confidence and celebration for years to come. For despite all of the evidence the agents had collected, critical information had escaped them. Before dawn broke, they would sense that something had gone terribly awry. Years later, they would understand that the evening had not signaled the end of the case, but rather the beginning of events that eventually touched the highest reaches of government and industry around the world, events that no one could have imagined.
For on that night in the summer of 1995, almost nothing was what it appeared to be.
I heard about the recent film based on this book (which I haven’t seen yet), thought the story sounded intriguing and noticed the book was extremely well reviewed on Amazon. “The Informant: A True Story” did not disappoint – it’s a thrilling, informative and well researched book. But most of all, it’s a fun book you won’t be able to put down. And when you’re done, I think you’ll agree that it proves the old adage, once again: Truth really is stranger than fiction.
How do you know when you’ve enjoyed a book? That seems like a silly question, doesn’t it? But books are mixed bags, not all good or all bad. Often, when I finish a book I like to stop and ponder whether and how much I liked it. A good metric is to ask yourself “Would I recommend this book to a friend?”. But here’s an even simpler way to measure how well you liked a book: How fast did you read it? The best books beg to be read – they seem to jump into your hands and refuse to be put down until their story is told.
Shortly after I started reading “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane”, by Kate DiCamillo, aloud to my daughter, I realized this was no ordinary children’s book. It’s a surprisingly dark and tragic tale, punctuated by occasional moments of transcendent joy. In Edward’s world, as in the real world, good deeds often go unrewarded and sometimes bad things happen to good rabbits. But above all, this is a simple and compelling story told with such exquisitely beautiful prose that it nearly reduced me to tears several times. When we finished the book, my daughter remarked “this is my new favorite book” and, amazingly enough, I felt the same way. Writers who can thoroughly satisfy children and adults at the same time are few and far between (Roald Dahl comes to mind).
Judging by the reviews on amazon.com, this is one of those books that people either love or hate. Although overwhelmingly praised, the few negative reviews complained that this book is too disturbing for children. But my sense is that children are more sophisticated than we give them credit for. They sense and respond to honesty, which is why I think this book ultimately works for them.
When I reflected on how much I liked this book, I didn’t need to analyze much – my daughter and I raced through it, never wanting to stop reading, which, by my metric above, tells me everything I need to know. As for my daughter, her review is nicely summarized by the following direct quote: “Dad, can we read just one more chapter before bed? PLEASE???”. That’s music to any parent’s ears.
As a long time chess player, I’ve often thought of chess as a metaphor for life. Decisions made at the chess board, like those made in life, can never be undone so you need to choose your moves carefully. As Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again”. In chess, as in life, you can play a perfect game, only to throw it all away with one bad move. And I’ve often been fascinated by the way a player’s style over the board mirrors his or her personality. My wife plays a cautious, analytical game whereas I tend to play impatiently, relying on intuition, often overextending myself.
Bruce Pandolfini, national master, prolific chess author and teacher, and inspiration for the chess tutor in Searching for Bobby Fischer, has written a tiny (105 pages) gem of a book that examines the idea of chess as a metaphor for decision making in business. Each chapter examines an important principle in chess and then shows how that concept applies in the business world and in life. Some sample themes:
- Play with a Plan
- Look at Your Opponent’s Move
- Don’t Overextend
- Seek Small Advantages
- Don’t Apply Principles Mechanically
It’s worth noting that this is not really a “chess book”, per se – it doesn’t attempt to teach the reader how to play or improve their chess game in any specific way and it doesn’t require or expect the reader to know anything about chess. The focus is on what we can learn from sound chess principles and how we can apply those same ideas to business and life decisions. It’s interesting and, I think, healthy to ponder how the ideas in this book might help you in your own personal game of chess – you’re playing one every day, whether you realize it or not. :)