December’s Dyspeptic Dystopias, Plus the Search for the El Dorado of the Amazon

Photo by Vickie Bates.

December’s reading. Photo by Vickie Bates.

We’ve reached the end, Dear Readers, and I’m thrilled to tell you that I achieved my 2012 reading challenge – finishing at least 52 books in 52 weeks! Thank you for taking this journey with me.

I’ll save the musings on What I Learned from Reading 52 Books in 52 Weeks for a later post. Though the book-lovers among you might want to note that when it does appear, that post will involve a reader giveaway of some of my favorite books of 2012.

I would like to thank the amazing Chris Lam, the woman behind the terrific What I Run Into blog, who introduced me to annual reading challenges in the first place and provided long-term inspiration. Chris recently completed her own challenge, reading 50 in 2012. Go, Chris!!

Standard disclosure: I bought the Meek book, borrowed The Flame Alphabet from my local library, and received the other two as gifts. All four are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.


4 down, 52 + 3 completed!


The Heart Broke In by James Meek
A novel about rock ‘n’ roll and science? You’d think I’d be in geek heaven. Except rarely have musician characters been done so wrong – these are the rockers who should hope to die before they get old.

The scientists hardly fare better. As with the ludicrous plot of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder and the recent movie “Contagion,” we get another piece of popular culture depicting researchers who test vaccines on themselves.

It’s beyond absurd for any number of reasons. I’ll list just three:

  1. It doesn’t translate that a vaccine that’s safe and works in one person will ever work for another human being (that’s why regulatory agencies mandate clinical trials).
  2. Even if you were going to test a vaccine on yourself, you’d try it on mice first to make sure it was safe because…
  3. You don’t want your lead researcher, who’s trying to stop a deadly contagion, to die suddenly, taking all her knowledge with her and setting back progress by months if not years.

The novel suffers from being in the heads of too many characters. We’re not with the main characters long enough to get close to them. After darting from perspective to perspective, the reader finds herself in the head of a peripheral character – the mother of one of the scientists – on page 231. In a 401-page novel. This is too late to introduce a new point of view, which is dropped anyway, just as suddenly as it appeared.

Bec, the valiant malaria researcher, is given a variety of motivations for everything she does yet none are believable. She discovers a parasite that may or may not guard against malaria, but the side effects bring on sudden blindness. She names the parasite after her father, a hero soldier, and deliberately infects herself with it. Her admiration for her dead father – and her inability to let go of the living parasite that now bears his name – is supposed to be her rationale for not taking medicine to kill the parasite, which is causing said blindness, so that she almost kills Alex, the man she loves, in a car accident. She continues to refuse to take the medicine, even when Alex asks her to, even when they try to get pregnant. Right. Because that would happen.

Alex, meanwhile, is the unlikely scientist and former drummer for a ‘70s-style band, led by Bec’s brother, Ritchie, and his wife Karin. Ritchie is the target of a labored blackmail scheme by a tabloid editor who used to be in love with Bec. While Bec’s parasite drama unfolds, we get chapter after chapter of Ritchie sweating it out as he waits to see his name smeared in the Fleet Street rags. One reason this never happens is because the blackmailer at first gives him a year to cough up something nasty about his sister to save his own reputation. When that time runs out, the blackmailer gives him several more months. A daily tabloid?! Never in a million years.

Okay, but is fiction supposed to be realistic? Don’t we read to escape ordinary life? And don’t we want authors to create never-before-realized new worlds for us to explore? Yes, yes and yes. Fiction doesn’t always have to be about real life, but when a writer devises a story, he must choose to set it in the world we live in (realism) or some other world (sci-fi, fantasy, etc.). Whichever he chooses, the bargain he makes with the reader is to establish the rules of that world. That’s the fourth wall Meek keeps breaking. We’re in our present, everyday world and characters need to act and react in ways that make sense for their own motivation and for the world; they can’t do things just because it’s convenient for the author. For example, the only reason Ritchie has more than 12 months to deal with his blackmailer is because the author has nothing else for the character to do while he plays out Bec and Alex’s love story.

I read this novel back-to-back with The Flame Alphabet (reviewed below) which offers a world like ours, perhaps slightly in the future or diverted a bit from history as we know it. It was difficult to read because the author places us so firmly in that world that he never breaks the fourth wall – we’re there, the world is different in small ways all around us, and we’re never jerked back to our own world for a little respite or explanation. We have to figure it out as we go along. That is the best kind of reading, tough though it may be, because it assumes the reader has the intelligence to understand what’s going on. Meek is trying so hard to push us along the tracks that he doesn’t recognize the train is derailed.

Supremely Successful Selling by Jerold Panas
(I received a free review copy of this book from the author. Opinions my own.)

You’ve heard of the Horse Whisperer? Jerold Panas is the Customer Whisperer.

Don’t let the title of this book fool you. In Supremely Successful Selling, Panas has written a guide for anyone, in any role or industry (and those trying to land a job), who wants to engage effectively with stakeholders or needs to make the case for a product, service or initiative.

In his 14th book, Panas outlines the key attributes of a successful salesperson, features lessons from the Great Ones – among them Mary Kay, Stanley Marcus (Neiman-Marcus) and Melanie Sabelhaus (who went from IBM to second-in-command at the Small Business Administration) – and provides proven techniques from a lifetime spent “making the sale.”

Panas probably would dismiss that nickname, Customer Whisperer, because he firmly believes the role of a salesperson is to listen, rather than talk.

“You’ve heard about salespeople who talk too much,” he writes. “But you have never heard about a salesman who listens too much.”

Listening creates rapport, according to Panas, and it’s only when a salesperson strikes up an honest and long-term relationship with a potential buyer that she or he can learn what the customer really needs.

“In order to listen the sale, you talk during the presentation for 25 percent of the time. The likely buyer talks for the balance, 75 percent of the time,” he notes.

Throughout, Panas reminds the reader that selling isn’t an end unto itself: “Your job is not to make a sale. It is to make a friend and a life-long customer.”

He dedicates several chapters to nurturing good customer relationships – “stewardship” – and focuses on the critical role of ethics in selling. “Integrity isn’t important – it is everything,” he insists.

“It can’t be just a win for you…That’s not integrity selling. It must be a win-win,” he writes.

With short, focused chapters, lively writing, and excellent case studies from companies of all sizes, Supremely Successful Selling inspires while presenting a detailed path to follow in your own work.

The appendix includes a list of 12 objections to getting a visit with a potential buyer and how to overcome them, as well as a variety of sample letters requesting a visit.

Throughout, Panas is clear that a primary success factor for any salesperson is doing your homework. I can’t think of a better way to get started than to add this book to your required reading list.

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus
You generally know when you’re in the presence of an original mind, and that is the case with Ben Marcus, who has written a post-apocalyptic horror story about a contagion that makes children’s voices fatal to adults.

The narrator, Sam, struggles with his love for his wife, Claire, wasting away before the onslaught of their daughter Esther’s words; wrestles with his limited understanding of the toxicity and clings to a desperate hope that science, medicine, the authorities, someone, will figure out a cure.

“All the guidance I knew was written for unexceptional times,” he admits.

Most of all, Sam struggles with faith: “One’s faith was meant to yield actionable material at times like this, I always thought, when one’s own imagination had failed, when nothing seemed possible. Wasn’t this why we accommodated an otherwise highly irrational set of beliefs?”

Horror begets tragedy as dying parents begin abandoning their toxic offspring, who seem to be “launching ammunition” from their faces. Tragedy begets more horror as children are first “voluntarily quarantined” and, later, branded “medical waste,” rounded up and imprisoned, until adolescence makes them susceptible to the voices of the young, too. And there is still more horror to come.

Reading this story is, as a friend once said about Flannery O’Connor’s stories, “unrelenting.” Yet there’s beauty in the writing and twisted insight in the creation of this world and the enormity of the loss – of loved ones, knowledge, sharing, thought – that it endures.

“It was early December. Year of the sewn-up mouth. The last December of speech. If you were not a child, safely blanketed in quarantine, bleating poison from your little red mouth, you were one of us. But to be one of us was to be something so small and quiet, you may as well have been nothing. If we had last messages, we’d crafted them already, stuffed them in bottles, shoes, shot them out to sea. Words written for no one, never to be read.”

“This is a plague among cavemen,” another character warns Sam, “and soon we’ll only be grunting to each other about it.”

I felt a bit of a caveman reading this. Whether it was my lack of knowledge about the Bible and religious practices and stories or the author’s vagueness about this world that seems a lot like ours yet veers slightly from our present-day experience. Some scenes repeat, sections go on longer than they need to, there seems to be a Chuck Palahnuik-like need to design technological objects with flesh-and-blood components – it is not an easy read. I’ll warn you: I like dystopias, but I’m not a fan of horror, and this novel, with its allusions to pogroms and concentration camps and its direct use of the Jewish faith, driven underground and blamed for the outbreak, made me queasy.

But on the whole, it is, as Michael Chabon says in his book jacket blurb, “something new and unheard of.” If you’re looking for a challenging read, Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet is it.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
How fitting to end my reading challenge as it began: with a book recommended by my Brazilian friends. And The Lost City of Z was equally as exciting as Equator.

How did I not know this astounding tale of adventurer Percy Fawcett?

Fawcett is to the Amazon what T.E. Lawrence was to the desert peoples of Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. He is largely responsible, in his work for the Royal Geographic Society at the turn of the last century, for mapping the territory between Bolivia and Brazil and presenting a more up-to-date view of the Amazon, its indigenous people and its ecosystem.

View of Amazon basin forest north of Manaus, Brazil. Photo by Phil P. Harris, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

View of Amazon basin forest north of Manaus, Brazil. Photo by Phil P. Harris, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the early 1900s, the prevailing view of the Amazon was that small tribes clustered around the Amazon River and its tributaries, relying on it for food and supplies from colonial outposts. Fawcett believed a once-great civilization had populated the interior, away from the rivers. He wove tales akin to those about El Dorado, painting a picture of a city dripping with gold, abundant in food, rich in culture. Most people thought he was nuts.

Scraping by – funds for exploration were far easier to put together for the more romantic Antarctic explorations of the era – Fawcett still managed six expeditions before his final, fatal one.

One of his best attributes was a willingness to learn as much of the Amazon Indians’ dialect – and inquire about the languages used deeper in the rainforest, in areas he wanted to venture – and a fierce moral code that made him insist upon meeting new tribes without his weapons (at a time when most white Amazon explorers turned guns on the Indians as a show of force).

As a result, Fawcett trekked farther into the Amazon than any explorer before, mapping the landscape and bringing back scientific knowledge to a world eager to learn about this wild land with 20-foot snakes, crocodiles and strangling vines.

“Fawcett’s ability to succeed where so many others failed contributed to a growing myth of his invincibility, which he himself began to believe,” author David Grann notes.

Fawcett and his eldest son disappeared on a 1925 trek into the heart of darkness, leaving his widow and their two younger children in poverty. Yet the mystery – the Fawcett party’s remains have never been located – sparked a century-long quest by thrill-seekers (known as “Fawcett freaks”) determined to find out what happened and locate Fawcett’s so-called Lost City of Z.

“Despite the passage of time and the diminished likelihood of finding him, some people seemed to grow more rather than less fanatical,” Grann writes. “For decades, they had pestered the Society for information, concocting their own bizarre theories, before setting out into the wilderness to effectively commit suicide.”

Grann is one of those drawn to retracing Fawcett’s final steps, despite the fact that he estimates almost 100 explorers have lost their lives over the years.

I won’t spoil the ending for you because Grann’s journey is as thrillingly recounted as the best adventure stories, like Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm. Along the way, he discusses both the history and the current state of the precarious Amazon territory. He also restores Fawcett’s rightful position as a modern-day Byrd, Livingstone and Shackleton.

It’s a hard irony that Fawcett’s vanishing may have done more to revive interest – scientific, ecological, anthropological – in the Amazon than his mapping expeditions. Late in the story, a scientist tells Grann that, “like the theory of who first populated the Americas, all the traditional paradigms had to be reevaluated,” including whether a wondrous ancient city like Z might once have thrived deep in the jungle.

A fantastic adventure, made all the more thrilling for being true.

A Long Reading List for a Short Month

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto, Rock 'n' Roll by Tom StoppardHere’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going plus reviews of February’s selections.

Standard disclosure: I own the Stoppard play; borrowed Yoshimoto, Shin and Eaves from my local library; received Power Questions from the author for review; and received The Social Media Strategist from the publisher for review. Several are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.


6 down, 42 to go!


Rock ‘n’ Roll by Tom Stoppard
Rock ‘n’ roll music’s power to make you think and, contrarily, lose all self-control and follow the beat makes it an apt metaphor in Stoppard’s 2006 play.

Taking its characters from 1968 to 1990, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” is full of contrasts: head against heart, politics and poetry, Marxism or pragmatism, the bourgeois safety of Cambridge versus Prague after the Soviet tanks roll in.

These are ideas Stoppard has visited before, most effectively in “The Real Thing,” where the subject of love was set to a soundtrack of Herman’s Hermits and Big Head Todd. Here it’s the Plastic People of the Universe, ex-Pink Floyd guitarist Syd Barrett, John Lennon, and the Beach Boys, with the Rolling Stones closing out the set.

The play, which is dedicated to the late poet, playwright and Czech president Vaclav Havel, opens just before the iconic Summer of ’68 in Cambridge, England, where Max, the academic Marxist, rules the roost and, presumably, a classroom of eager acolytes. Strangely, it’s Max’s wife Eleanor and, later, his lover Lenka, who are the only ones actually seen teaching various students.

Jan is a Czech exchange student, the all-too-real (for Max) embodiment of what it means to live under Communism. Max and Jan have an antagonistic intellectual relationship after the Prague Spring is crushed.

Max’s intellectualizing of Communism (with a capital “C”) causes no end of sorrow for those around him, especially his wife, who is dying of cancer, and Jan, who is about to return home to face who knows what.

“I speak as one who’s kicked in the guts by nine-tenths of anything you can tell me about Soviet Russia,” Max justifies. When Jan asks why he’s remained in the Party, Max says, “Because of the tenth, because they made the revolution and no one else.”

JAN: Dubcek is a Communist.

MAX: No – I’m a Communist, I’d be a Communist with Russian tanks parked in King’s Parade, you mummy’s boy.

Of course, it’s the reality that Max never has to face tanks in King’s Parade that makes him so angry at the accommodations he feels others are making.

The characters move swiftly through the years, demarcated by musical interludes from the aforementioned bands. There is a chronology of events, both historical and musical, related to the themes in the play, but this is placed at the back of the book (one hopes it was clearly in view in the theater program), and I sorely wished I’d read this first, even though it gives short shrift to such a vast swath of history.

I’m a big fan of Stoppard, however, what doesn’t work here is Max’s puzzling position in relation to Czechoslovakia, from before the Prague Spring all the way up to the Velvet Revolution. There’s no sense of why an entire state hierarchy would be remotely interested in an academic Marxist living in England, so one of the major plot points adds up to nothing. Also, the sharp cuts between settings and years made it hard to settle on the characters, who they are, what they’re feeling, how they’re changing – or not, in Max’s case. This confusion is practically a given when reading the book rather than seeing the play performed, but the brevity given to each era doesn’t help.

The play closes in Prague after Havel has been elected; the Rolling Stones have jetted in to perform.

“These are new times,” says Jan as the lights go down and Keith Richards cranks out an old familiar chord.

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto
This novella (185 pages in hardback) benefits from Yoshimoto’s deft yet plain prose. You’re quickly caught up in the lives of Chihiro, who’s just lost her mother, and Nakajima, a med school student who leads a life of permanent mourning.

They are two young people living in vast Tokyo, far from home and family, who recognize each other as kindred spirits and begin a tenuous relationship. Tenuous because Nakajima is holding back a big secret about what happened to him as a child. These events – and how his family treated him in their aftermath – scarred him irrevocably, fraying his tether to the world of human relationships.

The book suffers from jacket copy, which reviewers have echoed, that links Nakajima’s mysterious past with the Aum Shinrikyo gas attack on Tokyo’s subways. I don’t feel this is an effective analogy, and it provides a bit more tension than perhaps the book deserves.

For a short book, there are passages in The Lake that feel like they drag on too long or are repeated, especially in the early section about the death of Chihiro’s mother. And, as close as the reader feels to these characters, there are odd moments where one is drawn up short by comments, like Chihiro’s, that “physical sensations like smells and exhaustion don’t figure into our memories.” This seems plain wrong, smell being one of the strongest creators and triggers of memories; and, in the novella, Chihiro by this point has already recounted several times how vividly she recalls the smells – and her exhaustion – in her mother’s hospital room.

It’s possible the trouble is in the translation, since the prose overall is so effective at pulling you into the story.

In less than 200 pages, Yoshimoto gets us through the difficult early phase of a relationship that has more obstacles than most and deals with the unusual nature of Nakajima’s past. It’s fascinating to compare this book with Haruki Murakami’s massive door-stopper 1Q84, which covers almost exactly the same territory in a frustrating and unnecessarily lengthy form. It’s no surprise that The Lake made the Man Asian Literary Prize short list when 1Q84 did not.

Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others by Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas
NOTE: A free review copy of this book was provided to me by the authors.

My favorite editor and generous colleague Ariel Thomas frequently sat quietly in meetings, listening intently, then if people were struggling, she’d ask the most attuned, insightful questions to help the agenda get back on track. She used this same technique in editing: she didn’t strike out my words, she underlined and asked questions. She approached everybody with a deep respect for their ability to figure things out for themselves, and she understood that the rewards were greater for everyone when that happened. That is the premise for this book, Power Questions, by two leaders in the worlds of business and philanthropy.

They share 35 experiences, from their work with leaders and in their personal lives, and show how asking insightful questions took these situations to a deeper, more effective level, changed working relationships and family dynamics in positive ways, and created greater opportunities for working together.

If you’re wondering, How can a question do all that?, well, that’s a great question. The book is organized into 35 short chapters featuring real-life examples of questions that redefined problems, challenged assumptions, reminded people of what’s really important – like mission and values, and motivated people to dig deeper and discover more.

Each chapter ends with a guide for using the question in the right situations so that people will be receptive to it. There are also alternate versions of each question and suggestions for follow-up questions.

The final section expands on this format with 293 additional questions and the contexts they are most appropriate for, such as understanding a person’s aspirations and goals, getting feedback about a professional relationship, understanding other people’s agendas, mentoring, resolving crises or complaints, and improving meetings, to name just a few.

Video of Andrew Sobel author of Power Questions

Andrew Sobel, co-author with Jerold Panas of “Power Questions.”

Sobel and Panas avoid clichés and don’t throw softballs. They’re working with presidents and CEOs and board chairs with millions of dollars on the line, after all. Yet this book offers relevant tools for anyone at any stage of their career or life. It’s perfect for managers hoping to motivate staff, parents who want to help children make life decisions, job-seekers who aim to turn standard interviews into wider-ranging discussions, salespeople and consultants who desire long-lasting relationships with their clients.

It’s especially helpful, in the field of business books, that Power Questions is well-written, quick to absorb, and presents practical advice for putting questions into action. This is one to keep by your desk, dog-ear your favorite sections, and return to often for perspective.

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin
By chance I happened to read two selections from the Man Asian Literary Prize short list this month, and the quiet, haunting power of this novel took me by surprise. Even more surprising is the fact that this is one of Kyung-sook Shin’s only books to be translated into English, when she’s won so many literary prizes in Asia and is apparently one of South Korea’s more famous authors.

After Please Look After Mom, I’d read anything I could find by this writer. Behind the book’s somewhat maudlin title is a semi-autobiographical story that unfolds as each character reacts to the shock of their mother’s disappearance in Seoul subway station and then, by turns, recall their life back in the countryside, where she farmed and fed and cared for them through frightening poverty and fought to give them better lives. Only in missing her do the characters recognize their mother as a person, how hard she worked to make them what they are, how they disappointed her, and how often they overlooked her sacrifices, even when it came to her own health.

“…Mom would cook and bring out the food and wash the dishes and clean and hang damp dishrags to dry. Mom took care of fixing the gate and the roof and the porch. Instead of helping her do the work that she did nonstop, even you thought of it as natural, and took it for granted that this was her job. Sometimes, as your brother pointed out, you thought of her life as disappointing – even though Mom, despite never having been well off, tried so hard to give you the best of everything, even though it was Mom who patted your back soothingly when you were lonely.”

There is despair in this book, certainly, and mystery, but such overwhelming beauty in the weaving together of the stories of the eldest son, eldest daughter, husband, and other voices to create a memorable portrait of a Mom who ironically only becomes fully present to her family after she’s vanished.

Wanderlust: A Love Affair with Five Continents by Elisabeth Eaves
Eaves’ travel memoir ignited that desire for new cultures and perspectives that’s always just below the surface. At the same time, I hope I never have a travel companion like her. As a memoirist, Eaves shirks her duty, cagily leaving out details that might make her look bad, while, on the travel-writing side, she’s simplistic and reductive when it comes to exploring the yearning for adventure and other cultures, relying heavily on the quotes of other, better writers to do the deep thinking.

Eaves’ desire to travel seems entirely borne of the interests of a high school boyfriend, one of many men she falls too quickly for and abandons for no reason that she’s capable of or willing to describe, leaving the reader baffled.

She’s very young at the start of these journeys – to Spain, Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, England and France to name but a few locales – and still at that stage of life when one believes character is something that comes to you and not the other way around:

“Putting myself in new situations, I thought, would act as a purifying fire, charring away all the dross and leaving some essential self. Philosophers and travel writers down the ages have explored the question…I wanted that clarity. Without my own culture, would there still be something left? Or would I burn away to nothing?”

The book, with its exotic locations, could appeal to the adventurer in anyone, although there’s an awful lot of chapters spent angst-ing over “Who am I?” (when the answer is fairly obvious to the reader after all the author’s blunt talk about sex and needing to remove herself from just about every relationship she embarks upon). Once we were on the remote 60-mile-long Kokoda Trail in Papau New Guinea, and one of her fellow travelers, James, has a recurrence of malaria, and we spend the next few days and pages of the story following her trials and tribulations of getting out of the jungle and back to civilization, with descriptions of grassy air strips and dusty truck beds and how it feels to sit on her boyfriend’s lap, while losing sight entirely of James and what happens to him, I was out. This goes beyond self-centeredness, and it’s plain bad storytelling to boot.

As the customs stamps in Eaves’ passport pile up, along with the men she encounters, lo and behold, she discovers she’s jaded. Her comrades-in-khakis, with their Balinese silver bracelets and their Maori bone carvings, spend their nights drinking and engaging in one-upmanship – who’s gone to the remotest region? where was the scuzziest hostel? what dangers were they clever enough to escape? “We thought we were iconoclasts at the far edge of the world, but here we were in uniform, like members of any clique.”

At the end of the saga, she finds herself with a free ride in Paris – at the behest of a State Department boyfriend – and the chance to make a life as a writer there. But, traveling through Italy on holiday, she considers the ease of European travel a bore: “You go out into the world a sponge, and everything blows you away – the first palm tree, the first laundry line strung over desert-yellow dust. Now, though, I’ve absorbed too much. I know that Florence won’t have any impact. Zip.”

It’s a sad place to fetch up, especially for a writer, with no curiosity left for the world around you and what you might discover out there. This book has been billed as the anti-Eat Pray Love, but it’s very much of a piece with Elizabeth Gilbert’s self-involved memoir. If you’re looking for some thrilling, absorbing, intellectually stimulating travel writing, check out The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s Italian Days, the Durrell brothers, In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson, and just about anything by Mark Twain.

The Social Media Strategist: Build a Successful Program from the Inside Out by Christopher Barger
NOTE: A free review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.

My review, “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit Gets Social,” can be found on the Social Media Club website.