Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Jugaad Innovation- Think Frugal, Be Flexible…

This book is another example of western business practise starting to look eastward for inspiration and it will be one of many in the coming years.

'Jugaad' is a Hindi word meaning basically 'an innovative fix.'  The authors expand this notion by concentrating on five key points: seek opportunity in adversity, do more with less, think and act flexibly, keep it simple, include the margin and follow your heart.

Now the ungenerous may think this sounds like a mantra from an AA 12 steps meeting- I can just see in a couple of years time a group of business men sat in a 'power-circle' and one standing up and saying 'Hi I'm Paul and today I am going to be flexible and frugal'- but to be fair to this book it does make some very good points and is well presented.

The bottom line is western business- particularly the corporations- have a lot to lean from the lean and mean, thinking on their feet competitors in the emerging markets.  A very good section of this book mercilessly details all the failings of our current western business model right up to CEO level and this section alone should be required reading for all senior managers in the developed world.

Essentially though, the message of this book is simple and really just common sense for anyone in business.  Be economical with your resources, be modest in your own extraction of value from the business, think on your feet, aim to be customer inclusive and market responsive and continually keep looking over your shoulder at the competition.  It's not rocket science, but the fact that western big business finds it difficult to tick many if any of the above boxes perhaps shows how vital books like these-with or without it's eastern wisdom allusions- are these days.  In particular for UK and US readers, perhaps it should be sub-titled 'Get Back To Basics....Or Else.'

So this is a good, intriguing and insightful book, even if it does state the obvious.  Give it a go.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman

It's not often these days that I come across a book that I genuinely find has the potential to be life changing, but this is one.

What Oliver Burkeman does is picks up the idea a lot of us have seen lying there on the floor but continually shied away from- that this relentless propaganda about 'Positive Thinking' and you can succeed through focussing relentlessly on nothing but success and goals, and all of the material riches of the world will be yours- was actually rubbish. And boy does he run with the idea with verve and an intellectual keenness that is truly inspiring, without having to force a smile and thump a fist in the air whilst continually repeating the inane mantra that 'yes, I'm worth it, because I believe in Me!!!'

Burkeman takes us on a journey from the Greek and Roman Stoics through Buddhist meditation and the contemporary 'spiritual' philosophies of thinkers like Eckhart Tolle, to show us that blind ambition and the setting of materialistic goals is not only a flawed approach to life, but actually debilitating. The proof of this is of course in the pudding; in the US- and increasingly here as we continue to unthinkingly hang onto their cultural coat-tails- an obsession with positive thinking [invariably linked to achieving material gain which [supposedly] = happiness] has created a society with some of the highest levels of dissatisfaction with life and depression.

So something must be going wrong, somewhere in this thinking because it is not only making our societies more fragile, but also I would argue, degrading our economic as well as psychological health too [it does however of course, make the pedlars of Positive Thinking books and seminars a lot of money in the process though].

To not 'positively think' does not, as the scaremongers would have us believe, lead to personal and societal ruin through the destruction of ambition and flair. In fact, embracing failure constructively, accepting your constraints and working within them, accepting set-backs as inevitable and uncontrollable- because despite what the Positive Thinkers tell us, the universe is an unpredictable place and your name will come up with some sort of personal problem written upon it, sometime or other- can lead to a much more healthier, productive and, yes, happier life. Goal setting for example may have it's place, but it should not be an over-riding objective to the detriment of all the other aspects of your life, because invariably, when you reach that goal, it's never quite as wonderful or as ladened with happiness and a sense of achievement as you had thought. So all you do is defer happiness towards another goal...and another...and another...until you realise perhaps too late, that 99% of the process is actually making you unhappy, which all rather defeats the object, doesn't it.

As some Chinese philosopher whose name escapes me said, it is the journey that is important, not the destination. Never a truer word said, and if more people lived by that simple maxim, I'm sure the world would be a much happier and pleasant place. This book is an excellent place to learn more about how to live by that simple maxim. Give it a go, if just one idea in it chimes with you, then I really do believe it may well change your life for the better.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Bitter Drink by H.G. Haghenbeck

This is an entertaining enough, relatively snappy read.  The one-liners and similes are to die for as Pascal, the central character based in LA, takes up a job back in Mexico as a 'security consultant' on the set of John Huston's 'Night of the Iguana' in the early sixties.

This pretext, with walk-ons from the like of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, would appear to be fertile territory for some very good set-pieces, but to be honest, their full potential to my mind are never fully reached.  Also for a novella, the plot and range of characters is rather complex- definitely a triumph of organisation on the part of the author, because the narrative still bundles along at a fair old pace- but I for one must admit to getting a little lost as regards to who was doing what to who and where, as ideas about property speculation, the Mexican Mafia and Hollywood politics all jostle for attention.  Great areas for exploration, but a brief book like this needs a simple storyline where the 'experience' is as important as the plot. Haghenbeck can clearly provide the atmosphere and razor sharp humour, but he tries to cram too many plot ideas into too small a book in this particular tale.

Each chapter also starts with a recipe and commentary on a particular cocktail which- inevitably- turns up dutifully in said chapter somewhere or other.  This was a surprisingly entertaining technique, my only reservation being in such a short book with equally short chapters of only 3-4 pages max, the narrative tends to be too disrupted, making it all feel in the end more like a cocktail recipe book interspersed with a bit of narrative than a coherent novel.

Having said all that, this is a well written and occasionally very funny crime romp; I felt though it could have done with being snapped into focus a little more.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

The Devil: A Very Short Introduction by Darren Oldridge

These 'A Very Short Introduction' books from the Oxford University Press are always reliable pocket books to give you an overview into a topic [I've read about a dozen now],and this is no exception.

The author makes no bones about this being a historical analysis as much as a 'cultural' one, so I can't really complain about large parts of the book being concerned with the former, but the book really takes off and is at its most interesting, when Darren Oldridge looks deeper into the religious, socio-cultural and human psychological aspects of the Devil and his Works in human society, particularly the current one.

The idea that the Devil and Evil on the whole is based in an absence of belief and positive action and in the destruction of form and thoughts, rather than their development and enhancement, is of course spot on.  This leads to the neat observation of Baudelaire, that if the devil exists, it will be his primary purpose to encourage our ignorance him, and believe he does not exist.  If that is the case, in contemporary society he is doing a good job.

This book is so tight, well written and quickly digestible there's little point going over it's philosophical deliberations here- just give it a read, you can get hold of it for about a fiver- but just to reiterate my above point, it is when Oldridge discusses the contemporary cultural attitude to the Devil and Evil in general,that it becomes the most fascinating.  Because paradoxically, in a century [the 20th] when evil most blatantly romped across the planet on a grand scale, our understanding- even belief in it as a force- became fogged and diminished, and continues to do so.  In fact popular culture has parcelled up the Devil as not much more than a media actor, all darkness and demon-assisted and sinisterly sexy, รก la Hollywood.  The reality may well be as St Paul and countless others have observed, that he actually comes as 'an angel of light.'  Because on the whole, humans do Bad Things, believing they are doing right.

In that way, real evil as W H Auden observed, in all likelihood works most effectively in contemporary society through our class and economic system, through the ruling bureaucracies and now, more than ever, the media outlets they control.  The simplest and most frighteningly damaging example of that for us in the West, was of course Nazi Germany, where an inherently liberal, gentile and educated middle class were within a matter of a few years transformed into rabid supporters of Fascism.  It's a timely reminder from history, and one to my mind inextricably linked to theories of Evil.

So an excellent introduction to the subject.  For a more in depth study of Evil in particular, I would recommend On Evil by Terry Eagleton which is a wonderfully thought provoking analysis of the subject. Starting here is as good a place as any though. 

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

‘Street’ by Tyler Stevens

After reading a couple of dismally disappointing Big Publishing House novels [one of which inexplicably has made it onto the chattering classes self-congratulatory Booker Long List] it was a breath of fresh air to read this excellent novella from a small independent press.
In barely 40 000 words Tyler Stevens in Street achieves more than the current British literary novel ‘heavyweights’ [excuse me whilst I hold my sides laughing] manage to muster in three times that number. 
The story is told in the first person by Tyler, over a couple of days running up to Christmas in a provincial British city.  Other characters drift in and out of the narrative- notably a homeless woman called Veronica- but bang central to proceedings is the narrator, who is in the advanced stages  of a serious decline in his mental health.
He has a continual desire to inflict violence on random people he meets; although he fantasises about it, he never sees the urges through though, because he still knows its wrong.  But the urges are driving him crazier and crazier and crazier…
For one night though he offers shelter in his flat to a homeless woman which is to some degree cathartic for him.  She leaves the next day though and Tyler decides to track her down again.
The novella is then primarily focused on his couple of days wandering the city centre and his experiences there.  He has become a small-time drug dealer who obviously once had a job which he lost; he is also clearly up to his neck in debt and his tenure on his flat is on a knife-edge as he rapidly falls apart mentally.  Central to his wanderings also is Old Storm, a huge winter snow storm blowing through the city and something he takes up as a soul mate, in that its wayward tempestuousness mirrors his own plight.  In fact the description of this storm and particularly the first night, as thick snow falls on the city centre park he’s moving through, is wonderful, evocative stuff in its sublimely atmospheric description of both the natural and built environment.  Even jaded old me felt as if I was in that park with him…very, very good.
To mention any more of the story would be a spoiler so I’ll leave it there, but I’m so pleased I took a chance on this sparsely told but deeply affecting book.  it will not win the Booker Prize but that to me that is now A Good Thing when it comes to new literature.  The new, vital voices in British fiction are clearly now all in the small independent presses or, increasingly so, being self-published.  So if you want to find out what is really happening and vital  in British literature today, this is as good a place to start as any.

Friday, 20 April 2012

A Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrimur Helgason

Although I would imagine it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, I loved The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning

Toxic is a Croatian hit man based in New York, who through a bit of mess up at the airport as he leaves New York hastily after a bungled hit, ends up adopting the identity of a church minister and lands up in a place he least expected to…namely Iceland.

The rest of the book is an efficient and very funny account of the next few months of his life there, as he eventually sheds his stolen, Man of God persona but doesn’t manage to escape the grip of the church he had become involved in and he is absorbed into. And this goes for Icelandic culture as a whole too, which reels him in, in a curious and bizarre way you can only imagine a country like Iceland being able to achieve.

The prose is quick, sharp-witted and full of gangster one-liners and observations to kill for.  The characters are bonkers but in a peculiarly believable way, but the biggest star in the book to my mind, is Iceland its people, which eventually overwhelms even Toxic, the archetypal Eastern European gangster who by all accounts had, until Iceland, believed he had seen just about everything.

It is this wonderful atmosphere and sense of anarchic fun tinged with more than just a bit of serious violence that makes this book so successful for me.  It also weaves Toxic’s personal story from the Balkan Wars of the early 90s into the main thread of the story with sublime ease- not too overwrought in its telling, but highly effective in the ways it shows what shaped Toxic into the hit man he became.  And despite his cold-blooded violence, he’s a character that by the end of the book, you really cannot bring yourself to disliking.

So a great book if you like fast moving, wise-cracking tales with a bit more depth to them than just flying bullets and formulaic, gratuitous violence every other chapter.  I’ll certainly be searching out other English language books by the author.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Astronautical Musings Before the Next Great Adjustment like a river...floating to the sea.... or so I believe the Alan Parson's Project reckoned back in those halcyon days of AOR FM rock, back in those simpler times of floating synthesisers and Roger Dean artwork and the wonders of newly learnt airbrushing techniques...with real paint that is, not the hyper-clean cyber environment of photoshop pixels, not the of faux experience of heartless silicon valley programmed software, oh no, no siree...

But I degress.  Things have been quiet on the PP blog front so far this year but much has been happening behind the scenes and, who knows, we may see an autumn of frantic- perhaps even gently manic- publishing activity.

Soon away from the blocks will be the much anticipated poetry volume by Zip Domingo, called 'How to be a Spaceman.'  It has much to this space.  Here's a taster for you lucky earthbound mortals...

Memoirs of a Confused Spaceman #1

One hundred million balls of light

seen in a tube        sitting

my muse is not an angel she is a rifle toting harpy

he said but

who gives a shit in a weightless world

where escaped urine makes the most symmetrically pleasing

and melancholic startlingly perfect globes

that gently pulse

and I can amuse myself for hours watching fragments

of chocolate                      shards

drift in smooth dreamt paths

shards of pleasure

that Aztec cure all the aphrodisiac of

human killers for the Mercy of the Gods

yeah those ones those proto-Mexicans

challenged by a cowering vision-thing

and those Gods now are they just out there?

In that void blurred by voyage

and fevered nightmares that miss the earth

that elevates photosynthesis to the dizzy heights

of a lost friend status not merely  

something to keep in a bottle

and watch grow under synthetic light

but elevated to the level of a God….

                  …out here.