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

October 29, 2008

Rating the Book Covers — Steve Fraser’s ‘Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace’

The upside-down flag is a metaphor.

A few comments on the cover of Steve Fraser’s Wall Street, reviewed Monday:

This brief history of Wall Street is part of the small-format “Icons of America” series from Yale University Press. Because it’s a good book, you might want to look for others in the line. But nothing on the cover identifies it as part of a series, so if you’re hoping to spot its kin easily at a bookstore or library, you’re out of luck.

Wall Street and “Icons of America” are recent examples of trend at university presses to publish more books with mass-market appeal. The older Harvard Business School Press “Ideas With Impact” series is another www.hbsp.harvard.edu. And so far it’s been more successful, partly because it has a distinctive visual identity: You can spot HBSP books from halfway across the store at any airport Borders. Clearly Harvard had an advantage in that the “Ideas With Impact” series gathers articles from the Harvard Business Review, which itself has a distinctive look. But if U. S. News & World Report rated the covers of university-press books the way it rates colleges, Harvard would still win by a mile.

Apart from not establishing a brand identity, the cover of Wall Street uses yellowish tones that give it a retro look – a bit misleading given that Fraser carries the history of Wall Street into the 21st century. The cover appears to show a montage of shot-from-below pictures that suggest the dizzying, topsy-turvy action of the markets, partly through the upside-down American flag. It works well as a metaphor. For the same reason, you don’t want to look too long at it.

To its credit the cover avoids a static head-on shot of the New York Stock Exchange and visual clichés such as the Merrill Lynch bull. The montage also wraps in an interesting way around the spine and about two-thirds of the back of the book, which you can’t see here. On most covers, only the background color wraps front-to-back — the cover image stops at the spine to make for room blurbs or a large author photo. The unusual use of art on this one creates a handsome effect that says “money.”

Wall Street was reviewed on Oct. 27 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/10/27/.

Jacket illustration: Hirooki Aoki/Getty Images

Note: A thousand apologies to anyone who can’t see the image on this post. I’m working to solve technical problems that cause only part of the images to appear to some visitors, particularly those using browners other than Firefox. I’ll repost this page after I’ve fixed this. In the meantime you can see the cover on the Yale University Press site yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300117554. Thanks so much for your patience and for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 8, 2008

College Students Say the Darndest Things – ‘Ignorance Is Blitz’ Collects Fractured Facts From Real Term Papers and Other Academic Work

“The major cause of the Civil War is when slavery spread its ugly testicles across the West.”
From Ignorance Is Blitz

Ignorance Is Blitz: Mangled Moments of History From Actual College Students. Compiled by Anders Henriksson. Workman, 155 pp., $6.95, paperback. Originally published as Non Campus Mentis.

By Janice Harayda

Zoroastrianism was founded by Zorro. The South succeeded from the Union. Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.

What a pity that SAT scores don’t measure common sense. If they did, those of us who have taught college students might have seen far fewer lines like these on tests and term papers. And now comes Ignorance Is Blitz to show us that cultural illiteracy on campus is at once far more extensive — and more entertaining — than some of us knew from the students who solemnly told us that a fictional character founded a major religion or that the South “succeeded” from the Union.

After decades of teaching at a state college in West Virginia, Anders Henriksson has collected hundreds of his students’ gaffes and supplemented them with others from professors at universities in the U.S. and Canada. Henriksson doesn’t name most of the schools, and that’s a mercy when the blunders include lines like:

“The P.L.O. is the airline of Israel.”

George Eliot was written by Silas Marner.”

“Greek semen ruled the Agean [sic.].”

“The Berlin Mall was removed.”

“Without the discovery of the flying buttock it would have been an impossible job to build the Gothic cathedral.”

“John Huss refused to decant his ideas about the church and was therefore burned as a steak.”

“The Civil Rights movement in the USA turned around the corner with Martin Luther Junior’s famous ‘If I Had a Hammer’ speech.”

In a postscript Henriksson blames some of the tragicomic errors on an overreliance on spell-checkers and on anxieties about test-taking. The causes of the problem go deeper than he allows and include a devaluation of history in schools and grade inflation that allows some students to do well even if they write, as one student in the book did, that “St. Teresa of Avila was a carmelized nun.”

But the skimpy analysis in no way detracts from the hilarity found on nearly every page of Ignorance Is Blitz. Well ahead of the holiday season, this small-format humor book has emerged as of the year’s best literary stocking stuffers. In the meantime some of its mangled lines could add levity to a tense election season. You’re worried about problems with those butterfly ballots? America’s students are here to remind you that it could be worse. There was a time when, as one of them put it, “Voting was done by ballad.”

Best line: “The major cause of the Civil War is when slavery spread its ugly testicles across the West.”

Worst line: “Machiavelli, who was often unemployed, wrote The Prince to get a job with Richard Nixon.” One of the few lines that make you wonder if a student was pulling the teacher’s leg.

Recommendation? A great gift for teachers, history lovers and, of course, some of those “actual college students” in the subtitle. Many high school students would also enjoy this book.

Editor: Ruth Sullivan

Published: January 2008 www.workman.com/products/9780761149491/. First published in 2001 under the title Non Campus Mentis. Portions of the material in the book appeared in The Wilson Quarterly.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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