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Couple of book reviews

I’ve been reading quite a bit lately, but with a new job and tons of other things; writing reviews hasn’t kept up. Here are a couple of quick reviews of recent reads. More later.

Game Change

John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

A great inside look at all aspects of the 2008 US Presidential election. It covers both the Democratic and Republican nominations as well as the general election. The book is fast paced and perfectly embodies the theme of truth being stranger than fiction. In parts thriller, and in parts soap-opera, the book contains quite a few surprises for a political outsider or novice.

The biggest surprise is that the major drivers of the successful candidates were seemingly small “mistakes” by others — a chance misstatement here by a spokesman or spouse, the focus of the press on one particular story instead of another. If you believe the book’s causality chain, this book will leave you feeling quite disturbed about the workings of democracy.

Elsewhere, the book speaks of the various dramas that unfolded over the course of the election — Hilary and Obama’s bitter fight with the surprise ending of Hilary becoming SecState, the unexpected selection of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate, the McCain campaign’s recovery from a near-death spiral into oblivion, Obama’s embarrassment by his preacher Jeremiah Wright and more. Pretty much like the juicy part of the West Wing, with not much emphasis on policy. That’s one thing the book does not deal with… I do know that there were proper policy debates on issues like health care and so on but they’re rarely discussed and if so, only in a political context. Fair enough, I guess, given that the book is meant to be a thriller.

Your Brain at Work

David Rock

I decided to read this book after watching a wonderful presentation by the author at Google (here’s the video). The book and the author’s work is aimed at improving and optimizing mental performance. The central theme of this book is to explain various kinds of ‘blocks’ to clear thinking, insight and mental productivity to the reader, and to provide strategies for avoiding or getting around them.

I found approach in the book to be unique. At the beginning of every chapter, the author describes a scene from the life of a couple at work and sometimes at home — usually a scene where mistakes by the characters lead to them making poor decisions. The author then explains the issue, presents solid research about his point, and ends the chapter with a ‘take two’ — how the story might have unfolded if the characters had followed the right strategies.

A sample of the issues discussed — external distractions, internal mental competition among tasks that we must perform, interactions with emotions, the nature of mental insights. I could pretty much relate to every single chapter. In any book like this, it’s quite easy to get lost in the nitty-gritties of the research material presented as you go through it; so the author very helpfully provides a clear summary of the points discussed and improvement steps at the end of each chapter. I picked up this book from the library, but this is one that I’ll buy and read again and again.

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