Thursday, January 19, 2012

A flawed genius

Title: Steve Jobs
Author: Walter Isaacson
Publisher: Simon and Shuster (HB, 2011, 627 pps)
Price: RM 99.90

“(Sir Alex) Ferguson’s failings are well known. He possesses a quick temper, a despotic streak, a frequent inability to see the other side of an argument and an immoderate appetite for flattery,” said the Mail on Sunday of the football coach.  I had to laugh out loud. In my experience, every ‘successful’ CEO is a despot, a bully and an arsehole. And (many are) criminals as well. That’s what they don’t teach you in Harvard. What sets ‘great’ CEOs apart is their passion, knowledge of their products, and an ability to discern quality.

I have heard of individuals described in Tamil as either "camphor" brained or "banana-stem" brained. Camphor burns quickly, so people with camphor brains are quick on the uptake and learn quickly. Banana stem will only splutter, at best. (The Director General of an organisation I once worked in was a major banana stem. Returning from a management course, where they had told him he ought to try to get to know his staff better, he stood his bemused officers in a row outside his office and brusquely shook all their hands before disappearing. Scott Adam’s pointy haired boss is real!)

In Isaacson’s biography, Steve Jobs was certainly camphor brained. He was a ruthless despot, a bully, a though negotiator, a good marketer, an egomaniac, completely bipolar, cunning, spectacularly greedy, arrogant, obnoxious and rude; that is, he had enough ingredients for him to be a successful CEO. But he had more – he had a burning passion, appreciation and an understanding for technology, design and art, he was quick on the uptake, learnt quickly to differentiate what was important and what was not, and he was sensitive. Then there was his famous “reality distortion field” – his charisma, his ability to make his people do the impossible. He recognised and nurtured ‘A’ players. He had no time for ‘B’ and ‘C’ players; the bozos.  (Declaration: I have been reading about Jobs and have been buying Apple products for 40 years.)

His design talents included architecture: ‘… he had the Pixar building designed to promote encounters and unplanned collaborations. “If a building doesn’t encourage that, you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparkled by serendipity,” he said. “So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.”’

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, however, does leave one somewhat dissatisfied in the end. There are interesting chapters, like his battle with Eisner in Disney for example, but also many lame ones. The first twenty years of his life is dismissed in the first 55 pages, and we really don’t learn much about his early childhood to give us a hint as to what made him tick, except that he was some sort of loveable rouge and prankster. His relationship with his adoptive parents, Paul and Clara, are quickly brushed aside.  Several of Isaacson’s chapters read like, as if, written by a fan-boy. Particularly disappointing is the chapter about Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ives. How did these two ultra-sensitive individuals hit it off? What made the two tick? (Did Jobs have a spot for soft spoken Brits?)

This is not a biography worthy of Jobs, as some reviewers have said. Besides being overly fawning, it feels unfinished and rushed to the market to take advantage of the publicity following his death. It feels like an early version of Strawberry Fields Forever; in some places it still feels like an alpha.  It’s like a Windows PC; gets the job done, but is bloody annoying sometimes.

Isaacson’s Steve Jobs is a thriller; fast paced and full of action. Like most thrillers, unfortunately, the pace and thrill comes at the expense of character development, and after 627 pages, we still don’t know Jobs.

Still, it is a book worth buying and owning, at least in memory of a flawed genius (is there any other kind?) of our lifetime, while we wait for meatier biographies, hopefully less infatuated with his undeniable talent. Equally, he could also be whitewashed, given a fictitious ‘Kite flying in a storm’ moment, and made a mythical being (as if we need more gods).

We’ll see.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Americana Series

Title: Middlesex,
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides, 2002
Publisher: Picador (PB, 529 pages)
Price: (Please check for prices of different editions)

(This review was sent in by Ms Rain Che Bian, another book fiend -- the first time we met we talked for 2 hours non-stop about books, and would have gone on for another two if we hadn't been diverted by Gerard.)

“According to an ancient Chinese legend, one day in the year 2640 a.c., Princess Si Ling-Chi was sitting under a mulberry tree when a silkworm cocoon fell into her teacup.  When she tried to remove it, she noticed that the cocoon had begun to unravel in the hot liquid.” Thus begins one of the first chapters of Middlesex. Jeffrey Eugenides skillfully unravels the cocoon of a family saga and flavors the story with the extraordinary and occasionally, the magical.

From a brother and sister escaping war in their home country with an incestuous marriage, to young Calliope’s pubescent struggle with her sexual identity, this is a story that traverses continents and social taboos. The ambitious book is literary without being pedantic, witty without being cynical. It is a coming of age story that travels beyond the inner journey of self-discovery. Immensely entertaining to read, Middlesex’s endearing ensemble of characters navigate gender identity issues, immigrant life in America and racial politics against the sweeping backdrop of history: the Greco-Turkish War, the 1967 Detroit Riot, desegregation, the Nation of Islam, etc.

The book is not bogged down by the weight of its rich history and multilayered context. The narrative structure builds suspense while the language provides a constant feast of comic relief. Middlesex does not engage so much with the metaphorical and metaphysical as does One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) or dwell on the passionate and emotional as does The House of Spirits (Isabel Allende), but it will keep you tugging at the threads of the cocoon.

Middlesex won the Pulitzer Prize and Jeffrey Eugenides has just come out with a new book, The Marriage Plot, available in most KL bookstores. Middlesex is currently out of print in Malaysian bookstores, but may be purchased via A copy of Middlesex is also available for loan at the Lincoln Corner at KL Library, on 1 Jalan Raja. (Membership at KL Library costs RM16/year.)

The Lincoln Corner collection is constantly refurbished, please send any recommendations for new acquisition (fiction or non-fiction) to

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Saramago’s last hurrah

Title:     Cain
Author: Jose Saramago (Translated by Margaret Jull Costa)
Publisher: Harvill Secker (2011)
Price: RM 69.90

To say Saramago didn’t believe in God, would be an understatement. He was a life-long Communist and an atheist, and Cain, his last book that was first published in 2009, a year before he died could be described as his last middle-finger salute to the old guy (whom he has made no secret  of disliking).

Cain carries on where Saramago left off in his 1991 masterpiece (depending on who you ask), The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. In 1992, the Portuguese government ordered the removal of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ from the European Literary Prize's shortlist, claiming the work was religiously offensive, which is not un-understandable considering the book was about a megalomanic  cruel Jewish God who, dissatisfied with being the Lord of a small tribe, wanted world domination regardless of cost in human lives and sufferings. Saramago complained about censorship and self-imposed exile to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, Spain, where he lived until his death.

Cain is comic fantasy. It is not Saramago’s best work, but one can recognise the master's hand as he trusts, parries and teases. Not unlike a veteran footballer, he exhibits plenty of guile and trickery, but unfortunately he no longer has the legs. Still, he is funny and entertaining. Saramago starts with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden -- yes, that apple incident -- with the couples' hilarious arguments with God, but the rest of the book is told from the point of view of Cain (with deadpan naive-comic asides from the narrator) who travels through Biblical lands and time, has a roaring affair with Lilith (my knowledge fails me here because, as far as I know Lilith was Adam's first wife, who was created at the same time and from the same earth as Adam, not from his rib, and thus refused to be subservient to men), and gets involved in the tales of Abraham and Isaac, Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife, Lot and his daughters, Noah and his sons and the Tower of Babel, getting increasingly disenchanted with his Lord’s behaviour.

 This is a small book; only 160 pages. Those familiar with Saramago’s style of page long sentences, with no quote marks, no paragraphs, the use of the lower-case almost throughout, and his irreverent humour, will be proud to add this handsome volume to their collection. For newcomers, who don't mind trying something stronger than air bandung or soda-pop, I’d advice you start with Blindness: you'll either love him or hate him, but you'll not come out unscathed.