Ashlee Vance - Elon Musk: Inventing the Future (18)

Where to begin with this. Okay, so first, it’s a decent read about a man at the head of two companies that are incredibly influential in shaping North American technology and markets right now. The book is worth reading for that reason alone. But it isn’t the 5-star change your life marvel that most reviews would lead you to believe. 

Whether or not Musk is a crazy person, a jerk, or some kind of demigod isn’s super relevant to me. If you want to like Musk, there’s enough in the book to make you think he’s a genius. If you want to hate Musk, there’s plenty here to make you think he’s a jerk. Moving on.

SpaceX and Tesla are young enough companies that the book can describe their early years and recent successes, but their true impact won’t be known for another decade. 

I disliked the author’s style, and there’s no way this is perfect book. Vance inserts himself into the narrative for no reason whatsoever - mostly just the lazy use of first person narration to stitch together information. This habit, combined with too much fanboyism for Silicon Valley in general, creates this feeling like the author wants desperately to be part of Musk’s world. It’s annoying.

One premise about Musk’s childhood confuses me. Vance makes a lot out of the idea that Musk had a “difficult” childhood. He hints at, but offers no details about issues with Musk’s father. He references bullying, but the examples he gives - Musk being called names, a friend being beaten up - sound more like any rough and tumble childhood before the bubble-wrapped 21st Century. I feel like anyone my age could tell similar stories. Better examples needed to be given in order to justify the amount of time Vance spends on this point or he needed to dispatch with it quickly, like say that he has good reason to believe something or things very serious happened but no one would go on the record. Instead, he labours the point and then offers weak examples. 

The most interesting parts were the stories about challenges Musk and his company faced. The general gist of it is that people basically always wanted Musk’s companies to fail - competitors, investors want to make power plays, rivals within the company, vested interests from old industry, people who dislike him personally, etc. 

To me, these stories were the best way to illustrate how Musk’s clarity of vision and singular, simple focus (go to Mars, make the best electric car) are the defining characteristics of both Musk and his companies.

Julia Scheeres - A Thousand Lives (17)

"No one joins a cult" is one of my favourite lines in the book. 

"No one joins a cult" is one of my favourite lines in the book. 

"A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown” is about the rise and fall of Jim Jones and his People’s Temple. Jones, an American, takes a group of followers to settle “Jonestown” near the Guyana - Venezuela border. Their journey ends with nearly 1,000 people dead.  

The book is based, in part, on reports from survivors. This is both a strength and a weakness. The survivors tended to be people who were jaded Jones followers, so they are unable to answer the most important question of all: why on earth would anyone follow this guy? Jones seemed like a strung-out, inconsistent egomaniac without any real religious conviction or idealism to capture people’s imaginations. The book tells the “what” but not the “why”, and the why seems like the more interesting part. 

Scheeres seems to make a case against the idea that Jonestown was a “mass suicide”. She argues that residents at Jonestown were starving, living in terrible conditions, and had guns pointed at them when they drank the poison.

The phrase “drank the Kool-Aid” should probably mean “chose the lesser of two horrid options”, rather than "going along with something out of obedience or peer pressure". One doesn’t normally have a gun pointed at them in those cases. This again brings me back to the main question: how did all of those people actually end up at Jonestown in the first place?

What’s Next?

Stepping onto an airplane, so going with something that was already in my audiobook library. Elon Musk it is (and nope, no connection between the two books intended). 
 

Rich Cohen - The Fish That Ate the Whale (12)

Subtitle: The Life and Times of America's Banana King 

Still on the memoir/biography kick. Clearly that’s my 2016 thing. This one has been on my reading list for a long time, but I’ll confess. I didn’t really want to read another book about an American with an idea who struck it rich, business lessons were had by all, and so on and so forth.  I’m more interested in common experiences and people than rare experiences and people right now … but I needed something to bring me back to life after the Great Lakes/ Murakami slog of June. This did the trick.

The book is positioned as a business biography, but it’s the colonial, meta-Colonial (what’s it called when colonies start colonizing other colonies?), corporate political influence angle that was most interesting. This is exactly the kind of book that would have blown my mind in my early 20s - true life stories of people doing unheard of things and shaping government, politics, and history on an epic scale. For example, regime change in the Americas to make it easier to sell bananas. 

It’s not a perfectly written book, but it’s an easy read so the flaws are easy to overlook. The content itself is so thought-provoking that I appreciate the author’s work and am glad he put this out into the world.

What’s next?

Fiction, please. Something in which the intrepid detective Logan McRae doesn’t play a leading role ...

Philip Glass - Words Without Music: A Memoir (4)

Philip Glass is one of my favourite composers of all time and certainly my favourite living composer. I arrived at this book because I was digging memoirs but wanted something that would carry on the philosophical thread of The Glass Bead Game. Words Without Music was astonishingly perfect.

My music education ended after high school, and I don’t profess to know anything about composition. I can’t explain my love for Glass’ music on academic grounds. I just really love it and would basically listen to it 24/7. 

That said, I know virtually nothing about the man. I think he’s related to radio’s Ira Glass. I think he’s based out of NYC. He’s still alive. That’s about it. 

Favourite Scene/ Quote

It’s not so much the quotes that stand out as the adventures and the perspectives. It would fit right in with a collection of Kerouac and beat-era road-trip-turned-religious-cultural-exploration books. He takes off to Europe to study music, then backpacks through India before returning to New York City. He lands a gig working on a movie with Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha, who introduce him to non-Western musical traditions for the first time. He tests the acoustics of Greek amphitheatres with Allen Ginsberg. He flies to London for lunch with Doris Lessing. 

There is the obligatory deconstruction of his major works, for fans of his music. He walks through the thinking behind his music, the ideas he was testing and exploring, with enough detail to make any process-nut happy. 

There is a vivid depiction of the NY art scene and its players in the 1970s (Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, for example). This part was the most surprising - how blue collar Glass and many of his artist friends seemed. They drove cabs, ran a moving company, cleaned houses, and did plumbing work to pay the bills. The moral of the whole books seems to be that plumbing is a very useful trade.

It worked out for Glass, who apparently spent a great deal of time in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and frequently seemed to be fixing up one cottage or studio or another. 

That’s another favourite part - honestly, could you just imagine living in small town Cape Breton and hanging out with Glass and his friends every summer? I feel like there’s another story in there, waiting to be told by a Canadian storyteller.

Observations

Memoirs are problematic because, honestly, the authors can spin their lives however they want. But they can also do what biographies can’t: they can take you inside the author’s mind and show you a thought process. This is so fascinating when the author is someone who has been chewing on an idea for a long time, experimenting, and reflecting. 

What’s Next?

I know exactly what book I want to read next, but I want to read the print version, and I’ve just cracked Margaret Atwood’s Survival so it needs to wait. Something completely different, I think. 
 

Ross King - Leonardo and the Last Supper (2)

I left off The Glass Bead Game thinking I’d like to read a true story about a person who had chased “perfection” and artistic achievement.

I’ve never read one of King’s books, and the Leonardo Da Vinci one caught my eye:

After a dozen years at the court of Lodovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, Leonardo was at a low point personally and professionally: at forty-three, in an era when he had almost reached the average life expectancy, he had failed, despite a number of prestigious commissions, to complete anything that truly fulfilled his astonishing promise. 

Favourite Scene/ Quote

It’s actually the one referenced in the synopsis: the notion that one of history’s most influential artists didn’t achieve success until his later years (at an age when most people had already passed away) is AMAZING. Enough with the memoirs and biographies of people who achieve peak influence in their twenties. More of these older geniuses, please. 

Observations

The book was okay, but it moved around a lot between art history, art theory, Leonardo’s biography, and Italian history. I love every one of those topics, but it was inconsistent. Some parts were thrillingly thought-provoking, while other times my mind wandered. Caveat: the pacing of the audiobook may have had something to do with it. Worth reading, but not life-altering.

 
What’s Next?

My non-fiction itch isn’t scratched, but I have a hankering for something with a more prominent female character and something lighter, to cleanse my palate of Italian religious history and warfare.