Top 5 Books We Read in 2011

A brief reflection on five of the many books read and enjoyed during the past 12 months. Any of the following will be a good read we’re certain.

Also, a bonus… an all-time favourite revisited after a 40+ year absence, this time in an electronic format.

In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

A vivid capture of 1933–1934 in Berlin capturing the increasing stranglehold on power by Hitler and his band of thugs.

Very detailed portrayals of the leading characters and their many, many misdeeds. In particular, the “night of the long knives” that was a precursor for the atrocities which followed. Larson captures the period through the lens of American Ambassador Dodd and his family taking up his post in pre-World War II Berlin. Dodd was not a traditional diplomat. As he becomes acquainted with the German Reich leadership, Dodd increasingly recognizes their savage character and ambitions. He correctly assesses Hitler and correctly opined that war would follow. Regrettably, the “Pretty Good Club” of monied diplomats in Washington thwarted Dodd’s message.

One admires Dodd’s high principles for not attending the annual Nuremberg Nazi-fest: Dodd made the distinction between party politics and statecraft.

If a reader wants an insightful perspective of pre-war Berlin and Germany as it slipped into fascism, this is a definite “must read” accompanied, of course, by the classic Christopher Isherwood “Berlin Stories”.

Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage by Douglas Waller

A compelling read – – warts and all – – of William Donovan, an Irish-American lawyer from Buffalo NY who established the Office of Strategic Services prior to WWII. The OSS became the CIA in the early 1950’s.

Wild Bill Donovan personifies “Better to ask for forgiveness than seek permission”. He was an inspiring leader, lousy administrator and absentee father/husband. His and the OSS faced opposition from FBI Director J Edgar Hoover and others with their own espionage agendas and fiefdoms.

Donovan was a man of ideas, not politics. His OSS operations spanned the globe and despite many failures, played an important role in the Allies victory. Ultimately, he was sent packing with the wind-down of the OSS by President Truman, not a Donovan supporter.

Despite his shortcomings, I believe the world needs more men like Wild Bill Donovan: proud to serve their country, a bias for action, and an inspiration for followers.

Interestingly, in the current discourse on national health care in the US, Donovan’s friends secured President Eisenhower’s support so Donovan could spend the last part of his life in the army’s Walter Reed Hospital as cost of his medical care was beyond family financial capacity.

Definitely a must read for history buffs and those interested in genesis of American espionage.

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink

Traditional thinking is that motivation at work and at home can be best accomplished by a carrot-and-stick approach. Bonuses at the office. Gifts for children.

But, Daniel Pink argues that the carrots and sticks motivation mechanism is a flawed approach in today’s world. In fact, he argues, carrots and sticks can and do impede high performance.

Pink believes there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does. For Pink, the secret to high performance and satisfaction -at work, at school, and at home – is the need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves.

He posits that there are three elements of true motivation – autonomy, mastery, and purpose – and the best motivation we have comes from within, intrinsic (Type I) rather than external, extrinsic (Type X).

To lead today’s workforce that is not motivated by carrot and stick approach – – the flawed Motivation 2.0 – – companies must embrace Pink ‘s Motivation 3.0. And, fortunately, he provides a toolbox of resources to assist that transition.

Rationale arguments backed by solid research. Provoking. A very stimulating read.

Someone to Teach Them: York and the Great University Explosion, 1960-1973 by John T. Saywell

Jack Saywell was the Founding Dean of Arts at York University in the very early 1960’s. Invited to the barren campus north of the city from his warm midtown Toronto office at U of T by York’s founding President Murray Ross.

Someone to Teach Them is Jack’s story of the early years at York and the explosion of post secondary education in Ontario with the accompanying pressures to built a first-rate faculty. Jack had a unique perspective as an observer, engaged participant and victim of York’s internal politics during the university’s transformation from a small college in the middle of a cow pasture to Canada’s largest university in the middle of the greater Toronto area.

If you have an interest in the development of York University and post-secondary education in Ontario during the 1960’s early 1970’s, Someone to Teach Them will be a hugely interesting read. It was that for me, particularly as I was at the center of many on campus contretemps that Saywell describes including the infamous “Americanization of York protest – – these were the days of student power. And, for a brief time, one of Saywell’s adversaries as an editor of the York U student newspaper, Excalibur. We later sorted that out.

I had the good fortune to spend the summer following graduation from York as a researcher and writer for Saywell. Enjoyed working for him and with his team of researchers so much that I returned for a second summer during my grad school years.

Working for Jack was a demanding but enriching experience. He didn’t suffer fools or mediocrity with patience. But, he did inspire and provoke his team and his students to perform at a level far beyond comfortable norms. Outside the office, Jack was equally demanding: tennis games at which he excelled, dinner parties at which he articulated, entertained and outlasted guests. Enjoyed more than a few good bottles of red and single malts with him.

Jack Saywell was an inspiring historian to his many students and a widely followed political commentator for Canadians. For many of us York undergrads, Jack was our Mick Jagger of academia, a media rock star on campus. Truly, a unique Canadian. Larger than life. Canada needs more Jack Saywell’s!

Killing Floor by Lee Child

I learned of author Lee Child earlier this year. Somehow had missed the Jack Reacher novels despite always looking for a new and refreshing thriller writer. Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell for the recommendation via an interview.

Killing Floor is the first of the Jack Reacher series. Reacher – that’s the only name he uses – is a credible hero, unlike many other creatons whose superhuman attributes leave readers gasping and wondering… how could he/she really do that? Reacher can’t fly or stop bullets with his teeth but he can take of business.

Good plot with some interesting twists. Lots of detail to provide context and knowledge to readers lacking expertise: a Glock 17 has 17 bullets! Reacher gets the job done and leaves controlled carnage behind. I’ll not provide details as I don’t wish to be a spoiler.

I’m currently reading Reacher novel # 14. Have enjoyed each one. Reacher is an intriguing character and Lee Child makes him real. Particularly enjoy Reacher’s thought process as Child tells the story in first person narrative. Will be interesting to see how that translates onto the big screen with Tom Cruise in Reacher role!

Interestingly, Lee Child chose the character’s name “Reacher” following a visit to a supermarket with his wife. Child is 6’3″ and Reacher is 6’5″. As Child was reaching for something on the top shelf of the supermarket, his wife exclaimed to the then unemployed Child: “If you can’t get a job, you can always be a supermarket reacher”! The name stuck.

If you enjoy thrillers with credible heroes along the lines of Vince Flynn, Ted Bell, you will definitely become a Lee Child fan.

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, an all-time favourite revisited

Earlier this year I renewed acquaintance with Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” after a 40+ year separation.

The last time I read this impactful novel about the Spanish Civil War I was a first year undergrad at York University enrolled in Professor Donald Summerhayes American Literature course.

At that time, I read the Scribner’s edition which I still have in my library. Cost at the York bookstore, $1.45.

40+ years later, I read the e-book version. Cost online $9.99.

Times change. Formats change. Great stories live on!

The Eagles song “My Man” about the late and much lamented cosmic country rock singer Gram Parsons reminds one of the magic of Hemingway’s writing:

I once knew a man, very talented guy

He’d sing for the people and people would cry

They knew that his song came from deep down inside

You could hear it in his voice and see it in his eyes

With Gram Parsons, “you could hear in his voice”.

With Ernest Hemingway, you can read it in his words.

Grant Carter is the principal consultant at GreyHawk Consulting Group providing strategic marketing leadership and business-building campaigns for B-to-B, consumer product, and professional service companies competing in domestic and global markets.

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