One-Minute Book Reviews

October 26, 2009

Getting Lucky at Harvard — Ben Mezrich’s Tale of the Founding of Facebook, ‘The Accidental Billionaires’

That red lace bra on the cover is the first red flag

The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal. By Ben Mezrich. Doubleday, 260 pp., $25.

By Janice Harayda

A new art form may have emerged in this heavy-breathing, sensationalized account of the founding of Facebook: pulp nonfiction. Ben Mezrich warns you up front that he wrote The Accidental Billionaires without interviewing Mark Zuckerberg, who created the first version of the social networking site by hacking into Harvard University computers, downloading students’ photos, and posting them online.

With no access to the prime mover of Facebook, Mezrich tells his tale through techniques such as “re-created dialogue,” scenes set in “likely” settings, and “imagined” descriptions. He also draws heavily on talks with Eduardo Saverin, who helped to bankroll the start-up as a Harvard undergraduate and later successfully sued for the right to be listed as a co-founder of the site. You know all those “disgruntled former employees” you used to read about before a lot of newspapers banned both that clichéd phrase and stories by driven their views? Mezrich doesn’t use those words — and Saverin wasn’t an employee but a partner — but The Accidental Billionaires suggests why the technique has fallen out of favor.

You get a fine sense of the book from a bathroom sex scene that has Saverin undressing a “tall, slender Asian girl” at Harvard who wears a red lace bra under a white shirt. Men, how often have you fantasized about finding yourself in such a situation only to discover to your regret that wearing a red bra under a white shirt is something that women never, ever do? Have you been forced to conclude that for far too many members of the other sex, this particular sartorial blunder makes visible panty line look like chump change? Are you wondering if that “Asian girl” was simply displaying an admirable loyalty to her school by wearing its colors for sex in a bathroom stall and that you haven’t seen it because you haven’t dated enough Harvard undergraduates lately? Or do you think the woman didn’t wear that combination but that someone decided that a red bra would work best on a book cover? Perhaps Mezrich believes people won’t mind his failure to answer questions like these. Or perhaps he thinks, as he writes in another context, “they’d hopefully see the humor in the situation.”

Best line: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s business card has a line running across the center that says, “I’m the CEO – Bitch.”

Worst lines: No. 1: “the end was really a foregone conclusion.” No. 2: “the moment itself became historical only in retrospect.” No. 3: “Thankfully, the Phoenix leadership hadn’t traced the fiasco back to Eduardo yet — though even if they did, they’d hopefully see the humor in the situation.” No. 4: “Eduardo had spent many evenings in the stacks of Widener – poring through the works of economic theorists such as Adam Smith, John Mills [sic], even Galbraith.” No. 5 “[Lawrence] Summers shook his head. His jowls reverberated with the motion, like fleshy waves swirling in an epidermal storm.” No. 6: “Slowly, Summers leaned forward, and his chubby hand crawled across his desk.” No. 7: “Both had bright red lipstick and too much eyeshadow, but they were damn cute — and they were smiling and pointing right at him.” No. 8: “His hands roamed under her open white shirt, tracing the soft material of her red bra, his fingers lingering over her perky, round breasts, touching the silky texture of her perfect caramel skin. She gasped, her lips closing against the side of his neck, her tongue leaping out, tasting him. His entire body started to quiver, and he rocked forward, pushing her harder against the stall, feeling her writhe into him. His lips found her ear and she gasped again –”  No. 9:At nine a.m. in the morning, in the Eliot dining hall, he had walked right up to the hottest girl he knew – Marsha, blond, buxom, in reality an econ major but she looked like a psychology major.” No. 10: “Maybe feeding the chicken chicken was a mistake; how was he supposed to know what chickens ate? The thing hadn’t come with a manual. Eduardo had gone to a Jewish prep school in Miami. What the hell did Jews know about chickens, other than the fact that they made good soup?”

Editor: Bill Thomas

Published: July 2009

About the author: Mezrich wrote Bringing Down the House, made into the movie 21. He lives in Boston. Kevin Spacey is producing a movie version of The Accidental Billionaires called The Social Network.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 21, 2009

Kate Kelly’s ‘Street Fighters: The Last 72 Hours of Bear Stearns, the Toughest Firm on Wall Street’

As a rule, the business of business books is anything but good writing. But the Wall Street Journal ran an excerpt from a new book by one of its reporters, Kate Kelly’s Street Fighters: The Last 72 Hours of Bear Stearns, the Toughest Firm on Wall Street (Portfolio, 256 pp., $26.95), that had sprightlier writing than most in the category. And Tim Rutten quotes a telling paragraph from this hour-by-hour account of the last days of the Bear Stearns investment bank in his Los Angeles Times review:

“Regulators may never know what really happened [to cause Bear Stearns to collapse in 2008]. But one thing is clear: Once confidence in a company falls away on such a grand scale, it can never recover. Bear started that week with more than $18 billion in capital, its largest cash position ever. Three days later, negative headlines, a stock drop, lender reticence and big withdrawals from client accounts had cut those capital levels in half. Eight hours later, it was nearly dead.”

The first sentence of that paragraph, Rutten rightly notes, is chilling: “Regulators may never know what really happened.” He adds:

“ … this was a situation so threatening to the fabric and substance of global finance that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke would subsequently insist that, absent government intervention to essentially force the deal with JPMorgan, Bear would have gone into bankruptcy, causing a ‘chaotic unwinding’ of investments in all the American markets.

“Yet regulators may never know what really happened.

“That’s the intolerable fact of public policy on which this whole mess turns, along with all the pain it set rippling through the nation’s human economy, the one where ordinary people struggle to pay the deceptive mortgages that backed all those derivatives and where women and men who’ve lost jobs as a consequence of this calamity now scratch to find new livings.

“There are timeless human failings to ponder anew in Kelly’s artful narrative journalism — ego, hubris, venality and folly, the whole sad crew. They, unfortunately, will always be with us, consequences of our fallen nature. What we need not tolerate is a federal regulatory structure that is blind to the operations of those who wheel and deal at the very center of the global economy and federal officials who are so uncertain of their aims and prerogatives that they fumble in the face of crisis.”

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

December 6, 2007

Gift Books for Leaders, Managers, Executives and Others Who Want to Succeed in Business

The books in the “Harvard Business Review On …” series include authoritative articles on topics from “Managing Yourself” and “Motivating People” to “Green Business Strategy”

Harvard Business Review on Change: Ideas With Impact Series. By John P. Kotter, James C. Collins and Jerry Porras, Jeanie Daniel Duck, Tracy Goss, Richard Pascale, and Anthony Athos, Roger Martin, Paul Strebel, Norman R. Augustine, and Robert H. Schaffer and Harvey A. Thomson. Harvard Business School Press, 228 pp., $19.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Is the phrase “business books” an oxymoron? So many titles in the category read like Power Point presentations in hardcover or exercises in spin control by ousted chief executives who are trying to recast their legacies.

Not the more than 50 paperbacks in the “Harvard Business Review On …” series, each of which includes reprints from the magazine on a theme such as “Leadership,” “Managing Yourself,” or “Motivating People.” I picked up the Harvard Business Review on Change at an airport Borders, looking for an alternative to The Almost Moon, which I’d packed in my carry-on bag in the irrational belief that a novel about a woman who kills her mother and stuffs her in a freezer might improve with altitude. It was perfect.

This installment in the series collects eight articles published between 1992 and 1997 on why change succeeds or fails in organizations, and most of the essays have as much to say today as they did ten years ago. Robert Schaffer and Harvey Thomson argue in “Successful Change Programs Begin With Results” that sirens like total quality management lure corporations onto the rocks because they are “activitiy-centered” rather than “results-driven.” Other articles explore the failures of rightsizing, reeingineering and cultural change. The best is John Kotter’s “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail,” which argues persuasively that organizational change fails for eight reasons from not creating a great enough sense of urgency at the outset to declaring victory too soon.

“The most general lesson to be learned from the more successful cases is that the change process goes through a series of phases that, in total, usually require a considerable length of time,” writes Kotter, a professor at Harvard Business School. “Skipping steps creates only the illusion of speed and never produces a satisfying result. A second very general lesson is that critical mistakes in any of the phases can have a devastating impact, slowing momentum and negating hard-won gains.”

The authors of these essays draw most of their examples from major corporations. But their advice would also apply to or could be adapted for many smaller entrepreneurial ventures or departments or even for individuals wondering why they never keep their New Year’s resolutions. And because the series covers such a wide range of topics, you could probably find one for anyone on your gift list who is facing a challenge in business. How many of us wouldn’t benefit from being reminded at times of a remark by the novelist Rita Mae Brown, quoted in one essay, that “insanity is doing the same thing again and again but expecting different results”?

Best line: Former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine in “Reshaping an Industry: Lockheed Martin’s Survival Story”: “Financial wizard Warren Buffet once cautioned, ‘Beware of past performance ‘proofs’ in finance. If history books were they key to riches, the Forbes 400 would consist of librarians.’”

Worst line: A chart on page 194 listing the differences between “results-driven” and “activity-centered programs” appears to have the qualities of each program reversed.

Published: 1998

Furthermore: The titles in the “Harvard Business Review on …” series include books the follwing topics: Leadership, Marketing, Managing Projects, Managing Yourself, Motivating People, Effective Communication, Teams That Succeed, Women in Business, and the new Green Business Strategy. A complete list of titles appears on the Harvard Business School Press site www.hbsp.harvard.edu. Harvard Business School Publishing also has an IdeaCast series, a free podcast from “leading thinkers in management” at www.hbrideacast.org.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 3, 2007

Stephen H. Baum Offers an Antidote to Some of the Lessons of ‘The Apprentice’ in ‘What Made jack welch JACK WELCH’

A leadership coach draws on the stories of CEOs and others in a book that focuses on developing character, not unchecked ambition

Here’s something even scarier than Donald Trump’s hairdo: A lot of people who are just starting out in business have taken many of their ideas about how to succeed from The Apprentice. In some ways, that’s exactly what they shouldn’t do, says leadership coach Stephen H. Baum in What made jack welch JACK WELCH: How Ordinary People Become Extraordinary Leaders (Crown Business, $24.95) www.crownbusiness.com, written with my friend Dave Conti.

“While the show teaches the value of hard work, outside-the-the-box thinking, and resourcefulness, it also displays the contestants scheming, manipulating, feigning team spirit, and lying to beat both their teammates and their competitors for the single position in Trump’s organization,” writes Baum. “It promotes a ‘win at all costs’ culture. Had these stories taken place in a real company with real colleagues, most of the young executives would have earned the enmity, not the respect, of others. They continually display many of the hallmarks of [pretenders] and too few of the hallmarks of real leadership. Who in the world would trust them enough to want to follow them? No one I know and respect would hire them or work for them.”

Baum offers an antidote to the me-firstism of The Apprentice in a book that taps the stories of leaders such as Rudy Giuliani, Cathleen Black, Gordon Bethune, Gen. Tommy Franks and former Sen. Bob Kerrey, now president of the New School. So his book could be a fine gift for a recent graduate who knows there’s more to success that the show lets on but isn’t sure what it is. Baum www.stephenbaumleadership.com expresses a cornerstone of his philsophy early on: “Character means doing the right thing when no one is there to see as well as when your actions or visible or will likely be revealed to the world at large.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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